The 1922 Committee: the 'men in grey suits' behind 100 years of Conservative leaders
The 1922 Committee is the parliamentary group that sets the rules for how Conservative Party leaders are be chosen. David Thackeray, Associate Professor of History at the University of Exeter, explains how this influential group has shaped British politics over the last century…
What is the 1922 Committee?
At its core, the 1922 Committee is a group open to all backbench Conservative MPs that provides a means for backbenchers to discuss policy and communicate their views to the Cabinet – but in recent decades it has become well known for the role it has played in transitions in Tory leadership. It does this through taking informal soundings of MPs or, since 1965, through organising formal leadership contests.
While backbench committees had been a common feature of Conservative politics before the First World War, they had often been associated with factional disputes, which led to the party losing three consecutive elections from 1906.
By contrast, the 1922 Committee provides an inclusive means for backbenchers to air their views and help shape party policy.
While the 1922 Committee is best known for its role in Conservative leadership contests, it has also hosted a number of important speeches by party leaders, and it has become common practice for the party leader to give an annual speech to backbenchers at the end of the parliamentary term.
The most controversial of these was delivered by Margaret Thatcher during the early months of the miners’ strike in July 1984. She was reported as saying that “we had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within”. It was a barbed reference to the miners’ unions.
While the speech proved highly divisive when it was subsequently reported, private papers released in 2014 indicate she intended to make similar comments at that year’s party conference in Brighton. However, following the IRA bombing of Thatcher’s hotel, her speech was hastily rewritten.
When was the 1922 Committee formed? It wasn’t 1922…
Conservative backbench MPs played a prominent role in the fall of Liberal Party prime minister David Lloyd George’s coalition government in 1922.
While Lloyd George was widely admired for his leadership record during the First World War, he had long attracted criticism for his controversial leadership style, which included bestowing honours for his own personal advancement.
A meeting of Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club – a private members’ club in central London, and the original home of the Conservative Party – was key to the party’s abandonment of the coalition and Lloyd George’s downfall. Conservative leader Austen Chamberlain, who had supported the continuation of the coalition, also subsequently resigned.
The resulting general election saw the Conservatives, under Andrew Bonar Law, take government with a majority.
But this was not the event that precipitated the formation of the 1922 Committee: this came after the general election of 1923, which was called by Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin after Bonar Law resigned due to ill health (after only 209 days in office).
The 1922 Committee initially began as a dining club, and it was only from 1926 that all backbench Conservative MPs were invited to become members.
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When did the 1922 Committee become so powerful?
Conservative backbenchers have long played an important role in shaping who gets to be party leader. In 1940 Lord Salisbury led a ‘Watching Committee’, which channelled Conservative discontent to Neville Chamberlain in the months leading up to his replacement as prime minister by Winston Churchill.
However, it wasn’t until 1965 that the 1922 Committee’s role as Conservative ‘kingmakers’ became formalised, when a process for electing a party leader was introduced. At first only MPs could vote, but from 2001 leadership contest onwards party members have had the final say over who becomes the next Conservative leader in the event of a leadership contest.
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Under the current rules, introduced in 1998, a leadership contest can be triggered by 15 per cent of Conservative MPs writing a letter to the chairman of the 1922 Committee calling for a vote.
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Who sits on the 1922 Committee and how are they chosen?
The 1922 Committee is entirely comprised of backbench MPs, although in 2010 there was an attempt to change that.
When David Cameron formed a coalition government (alongside the Liberal Democrats) in 2010, he sought to change the 1922 Committee’s constitution to enable frontbenchers to play a greater role in its activities.
The move didn’t go down well with several backbenchers, fearing it was an attempt to control potential dissent and undermine their autonomy. It prompted Sir Graham Brady, who became chairman that year, to rule that while frontbenchers would be able to attend meetings of the 1922 Committee, only backbenchers would be able to vote for its officers and the 12-member executive committee.
Does the Labour Party have an equivalent to the 1922 Committee?
The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) performs a similar function to the 1922 Committee, although there are important differences. Membership is open to all Labour MPs, and until 1970 the party leader also led the PLP. Since 1983, Labour leadership contests have been decided by a weighted electoral college made up of affiliated trade unions, party members and MPs.
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Four key moments in the history of the 1922 Committee
The introduction of Leadership contests, 1965
When Harold Macmillan announced his decision to resign as prime minister in 1963 – in a letter delivered to the Conservative party conference – there was no obvious successor. With no formal mechanism to elect a Conservative leader, informal ‘soundings’ were taken within the parliamentary party.
After both frontrunners – R A Butler and Reginald Maudling – performed poorly at the conference, the Conservatives settled on Sir Alec Douglas-Home as leader. Douglas-Home subsequently renounced his peerage to fight a by-election so he could sit in the House of Commons.
The process frustrated many younger MPs such as Iain Macleod, who would claim that Douglas-Home’s victory relied on a ‘magic circle’ of party grandees. Labour leader Harold Wilson ended 13 years of Tory rule in 1964 running on a programme of modernisation against his aristocratic rival. The divisions caused by the earlier succession crisis led the Conservatives to introduce a formal process for leadership contests – via the 1922 Committee – when Douglas-Home resigned as party leader the following year.
Becoming the ‘men in grey suits’, 1990
Margaret Thatcher’s 15-year leadership of the Conservative Party was bookended by the 1922 Committee’s activities.
The first came following Edward Heath’s third general election defeat in October 1974, prompting the 1922 Committee to urge the Conservative leader to either resign or hold a leadership contest (at the time there was no way to challenge an incumbent).
Heath resigned after finishing behind Thatcher in the first round of votes. However, the rules agreed for this 1975 contest – namely that the victorious candidate needed to lead their nearest rival by a margin of 15 per cent – were central to Thatcher’s eventual downfall in 1990. She missed the threshold by four votes in the first round, and subsequently resigned before the second could take place.
The party insiders who suggested she should resign were described at the time as the ‘men in grey suits’, a term which has since been regularly employed to refer to the leaders of the 1922 Committee.
Toppling a sitting Conservative leader, 2003
Both Theresa May and Boris Johnson were badly damaged as Conservative party leaders by backbench revolts, but there was only one to lose a vote of no confidence initiated through the 1922 Committee: Iain Duncan Smith, whose leadership was rejected by 90 votes to 75 in 2003.
Duncan Smith had faced opposition for his lack of charismatic leadership. He was further undermined by ‘Betsygate’ – allegations of inappropriate salary payments to his wife who acted as his diary secretary.
It was to get worse: Duncan Smith’s novel, The Devil’s Tune, was published the day he left office, reportedly selling only 18 copies on its first week of release.
Forcing Theresa May to step down, 2019
The 1922 Committee grew in public prominence as a result of Theresa May’s troubled Brexit negotiations. May won a vote of no confidence by 200 votes to 117 in December 2018. However, it was reported that she had announced she would stand down as Conservative party leader before the next general election as a means of ensuring that she would win the vote.
In March 2019, May announced that she would resign before the next round of Brexit negotiations, but did not set a date to leave. It was only following requests for clarification by the 1922 Committee chairman, Sir Graham Brady, that she eventually stood down – and in June 2019, Boris Johnson won the subsequent leadership contest
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David Thackeray is Associate Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He is a historian of the political history of modern Britain and the British World. His most recent book, co-authored with Richard Toye, is Age of Promises: Electoral Pledges in Twentieth-Century Britain (Oxford University Press, 2021)