Man of letters Brady is the new Albert Pierrepoint for failed prime ministers

Man of l etters: Brady is a sort of l atter- day A l bert Pierrepoint for fai l ed prime ministers.

It’s fair to say that the words “Sir Graham Brady would like to arrange a meeting with you” are among the most portentous any Conservative leader can hear.

Many a prime-ministerial bowel must have quivered at the very mention of his name.

The reason is invariably that if the chair of the 1922 Committee, as Sir Graham has been since 2010, wants a quiet word, then the end cannot be far away.

He turns up when the backbenchers tell him to, as a sort of shop steward, and his job is to tell a prime minister that the game is up.

He has previously had to do so with Theresa May and Boris Johnson, so he’s quite well rehearsed in the role.

He knows the drill.

Last Thursday he went through it again, in a meeting supposedly requested by Liz Truss, with the pair soon joined by her deputy prime minister, Therese Coffey, and the chair of the party, Jake Berry.

About two hours later, the podium of doom was parked outside Downing Street, Truss’s husband appeared, and the end was confirmed before she had even opened her mouth.

But it wasn’t leaked – testament to Sir Graham’s ability to keep his counsel.

Brady is a kind of latter-day Albert Pierrepoint for failed prime ministers. Sometimes he has to advise one to dispose of a failing senior colleague (as was the case with the unfortunate Kwasi Kwarteng).

But that can often itself be a precursor of worse to come.

As Truss reportedly remarked to her old friend Kwasi when she parted company with him, “They’re coming for me next.”

The chair of the 1922 Committee is the harbinger of political doom, the grim reaper of vaulting ambitions, the hateful Moros of Westminster.

He’s quite a nice chap, though, Sir Graham.

Tall, and with a toothy grin, he’s got a certain gentle presence.

He’s amiable, courteous in manner, and surprisingly candid considering his position and the secrets he keeps so well.

He’s been an MP since 1997, and, like some other older members of the executive of the ’22, is a bit of a throwback to an earlier era; to the kind of oldfashioned, unambitious, uncomplaining backbencher that was once commonplace but has now given way to a kind of insurgency of hyper-partisan populist nationalists.

Where once the Tories’ secret weapon was loyalty, now they are addicted to plotting, factionalism and rebellion. A fact: the parliament of 1959 to 1964, during a Conservative government,

didn’t lose a single parliamentary vote. Now it is as if they cannot win one.

The party, along with the nation, is lucky to have the likes of Brady still around, adding a bit of ballast and balance to the unstable Tory balloon.

Unusually for a big-shot Tory, Brady doesn’t have the usual instinctive fear of reporters, and doesn’t recoil in horror at the very sight of them.

Brady can string a sentence together in front of a journalist, in public or in private, without making a fool of himself or them, all while avoiding the robotic repetition of three-word slogans that passes for discourse all too often these days.

When he appeared last week to outline the rules of the latest contest, he was happy to take questions, including impertinent ones.

Chris Mason, for example, the BBC’s political editor, asked Brady: “Do you accept that this is a complete dog’s dinner?” With masterful old-school understatement, Sir Graham looked glum and simply answered: “It’s certainly not a circumstance that I would wish to see.” Indeed.

If he can’t answer, he’ll say so; if he can, he will, and he’ll be quite charming with it.

He’s been the elected chair of the committee for 12 years, and that greatly enhances his authority.

His self-confidence, essential in a role that basically involves sacking prime ministers, means that he doesn’t have to worry too much about what he says and to whom.

One secret of his longevity in the post is a rare ability to command some respect from most wings of this most fissiparous of political groupings.

It requires great skill to act as a broker between different factions when the stakes can be so high.

Thus he would have had to find a way though the present leadership crisis by putting together some scheme to streamline the process and to make it far quicker than the usual months-long travelling circus of regional hustings and a free-for-all spread of candidates.

Now there’s a high hurdle of 100 nominations (out of 350 MPs) to amass before you can even stand, and it’ll all be over in a week (maybe less).

In his ability to rub along with his awkward flock and be everyone’s friend, he is a little reminiscent of one of his more notorious predecessors, Edward du Cann (who was chair from 1972 to 1984, and a bit of a plotter and rotter).

Legend has it that when a Tory backbencher asked him the time, he replied: “What time would you like it to be, old boy?”

There’s no direct eyewitness account of the Brady-Truss meetings, but a flavour of these encounters can be gleaned from an account of a very similar session with May in 2019, when she was desperately trying to cling on to “the honour of my life”.

Her chief of staff, Gavin (now Lord) Barwell, records this in his memoir:

“Graham Brady told the prime minister that some members of the executive of the 1922 Committee wanted to change its rules to allow another confidence vote before the twelve-month period was up.

He said he and his fellow officers wondered whether she wanted to pre-empt the discussion, either by saying something further about her intentions [ie setting a date or condition for departure] or by submitting herself to another confidence vote voluntarily?

That suggestion met with a pretty punchy response … Graham was sympathetic, but said the situation was ugly and that he feared it was going to get worse.”

Punchy and determined as May was, Brady steered her out, and a month later she was forced to make her famous tearful speech of resignation at the podium outside No 10.

Having helped to push Theresa May out of office, he pondered a run for the leadership himself, and actually stood down temporarily from the ’22 to take soundings and organise a campaign

The 1922 Committee, or “the ’22”, started out in 1923 as club of new members of parliament who had been elected at the general election in November of the previous year.

Gradually it came to encompass all backbench Conservative MPs, and since the Second World War it has played a pivotal role in the fortunes of the party, dimly reflecting a less deferential and more democratic trend in society as a whole.

Before the Conservatives decided, in 1965, to take the modernising step of electing their leaders, these figures usually “emerged” through a series of consultations involving the cabinet, MPs, peers, and the network of local associations representing the membership.

After this democratisation, the chairs of the ’22 – all men, thus far: the job has never fallen to a woman – also became more prominent in the process of defenestrating leaders.

Such largely neglected chairs as Cranley Onslow (1984-1992) and Marcus Fox (1992-1997) played key roles in the stormy leadership crises that assailed Margaret Thatcher towards the end of her premiership, and John Major after the ERM debacle in 1992.

When they and their colleagues on the ’22 formed a delegation to Downing Street, they were dubbed “the men in grey suits”, and the label stuck.

As it happens, Onslow was forced out of the role of chair for his trouble, after eight years in post, while Fox became a quite familiar figure on the television,

haplessly trying to defend Major and denying the obvious trouble he was in.

Brady, too, has had his share of ructions.

In the latter phases of the Johnson leadership crisis in June, the combustible Andrew Bridgen and other rebels threatened to stand en masse for the 1922 executive and clear it out if it failed to get rid of Johnson as prime minister. Brady survived, and shortly afterwards, in early July, Johnson resigned, blaming the “herd instinct” of MPs (ie the ’22).

The depths of Johnson’s unpopularity among his own MPs seems to have been mysteriously forgotten in recent days.

But Brady is in fact highly unusual among 1922 Committee chairs, having sometimes been quite vocal in his views, both before taking the role and while in it.

He is on the unintellectual right of the party, and served as a junior shadow minister under Michael Howard and David Cameron, but quit when Cameron, a product of Eton, effectively watered down the party’s commitment to state grammar schools.

As a product of one himself, and passionate about them as a ladder of opportunity for poorer families, Brady resigned in protest from the front bench.

He still doesn’t appear to like Cameron much.

A proud alumnus of Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, Brady knew what he was talking about, but his frontbench and potentially ministerial career ended almost before it began.

He once declared: “As a believer in grammar schools, I have always thought that the goal of state education should be to achieve such high standards that parents would not wish to send their children to private schools.”

Born in Salford in 1967, Brady studied law at Durham, and got into student politics.

He met his wife, Victoria, at college, and they have two children.

He worked in PR and at a think tank before being elected for his home seat, Altrincham and Sale West, in 1997. He narrowly missed being wiped out in the New Labour landslide.

He was the youngest Tory MP at the time.

As was fashionable then, Brady was and is a strong Eurosceptic, and even proposed a post-Brexit plan to replace the Northern Ireland backstop through “technological solutions”.

He opposed the Conservatives entering into a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, preferring a purer minority administration (and a more Eurosceptic one).

During the Covid pandemic he was prepared to oppose the sweeping legislation on emergency state powers and lockdowns, and spoke accordingly.

The most curious incident in Brady’s career came in 2019. Having helped to push Theresa May out of office, he pondered a run for the leadership himself, and actually stood down temporarily from the ’22 to take soundings and organise a campaign.

Up against Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and others, Brady didn’t stand much of chance, found no support, and abstained from any role at all in the election. The quixotic bid still puzzles, and was greeted with incredulity at the time.

Alan Duncan, then a Foreign Office minister, noted in his diary entry of Friday 24 May 2019:

“As if credulity has not already been stretched to its limits … Graham Brady has told Theresa May that he will stand down as chairman of the 1922 in order to put himself forward as a leadership candidate. It is bonkers beyond utter bonkers.

Apart from the deceit of overseeing her removal only to stand himself, he has no qualifications that equip him for the role … The chairman of the 1922 should remain unimpeachably impartial, and be above ministerial ambition of any sort. His stock will now plummet.”

If it did, it has recovered, and so he remains one of the longestserving chairs of the committee, and its most powerful ever.

He wields more influence than most cabinet ministers, let alone MPs, and does so with delicacy and firmness.

His long-standing deputy Sir Charles Walker, who spoke so movingly in the last few days about the state of the party and the “talentless” careerists who’ve ruined it, has offered this abiding judgement of Sir Graham:

“He’s a man who believes in parliament and a man who believes in doing things properly.

Graham is straight as a die.

He’s straight in his dealings with people … The chairman of the ’22 should be spiky. That’s his role – to be a critical friend.

The ’22 is rightly regarded as being a powerful organisation and leaders are best advised to be wary of it. But it’s also capable of providing great support in time of difficulty.”

Who could dissent from that?

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