The 1922 Committee may not excite most people, but this account of its first century – for, as Philip Norton writes, it was actually founded in 1923 – exhibits impeccable scholarship and a degree of charm. Norton has not only, as a Conservative peer, attended the weekly meetings of the ’22 (as it is widely known), but has studied countless documents about it. His book is only the second to cover the history of this organised group of Conservative parliamentarians. The first, by Philip Goodhart, was published for the 50th anniversary, but when Goodhart was writing, in 1973, the ’22 had barely begun to flex its muscle – indeed, it had hardly realised that it had had any muscle to flex.
The ’22 was the brainchild of Gervais Rentoul, who became the MP for Lowestoft at the 1922 election. In those days, there was no debate about what the leader of the Conservative Party did: he did what he and his close associates liked. Rentoul’s idea was to form a group composed solely of those who had been elected, like him, in 1922, as a means to learn the ropes. As Norton points out, like all proper Conservative institutions, the ’22 soon evolved. It extended membership to the intakes of the 1923 and 1924 elections, and eventually to all Conservative MPs who were not ministers. Much later, Conservative peers were invited.
For much of its existence, it was an opportunity for MPs to sound off in private among co-religionists, whether about grievances against the leadership, or against fellow Members harming party unity; but a whip was invited, and sometimes ministers, and messages were conveyed about matters of possible discontent. Harold Macmillan used an address to the ’22 during the Suez crisis to pitch for the leadership (though Norton does not quote Enoch Powell’s observation of that speech that its “sheer devilry” was “disgusting”). Sometimes ministers addressing the ’22 came out so badly that their careers nose-dived. But it was not until the party abandoned the “magic circle” – the means by which its leaders “emerged” rather than were elected, which last happened in 1963 – that the ’22 really grew teeth.
Part of its evolution was that its executive was consulted on, and then ran, contests for the leadership. The first time the ’22 became aggressive with a leader was with Ted Heath, when his losing two elections in seven months in 1974 failed to convince him that he might not be an ideal leader. The rules were changed so that someone who did not stand in the first round of a leadership ballot could run in the second – which allowed Heath loyalists to come in against Mrs Thatcher in February 1975 when, to Heath’s horror, she beat him in the first round, but not by enough to win outright, which she did in the second.
Yet it was not until the 13 years of opposition after the 1997 Blair landslide that the ’22’s claws really came out. It defenestrated Iain Duncan Smith; it attacked Michael Howard when he over-reacted to a speech by the party’s deputy chairman, Howard Flight, and rather than just sack him, removed the whip. David Cameron, when leader, saw all who disagreed with him or questioned him as enemies to be neutralised, and tried to make the ’22 allow ministers to join, mainly so they could use their influence to prevent critics of his being elected. His plan backfired badly. The threat of a challenge in the courts stopped him: he had no authority over the ’22, which was effectively a private club, and the person he least wanted to run the ’22, Graham Brady, secured its chair.