Editorial by Owen Lippert
UK Prime Minister Liz Truss has resigned. Pundits are busy parsing what it all means.
I report here only the good news. Her resignation saves the 1922 Committee from having to review its rule that a new Conservative leader has a year’s grace from backbench discontent.
Esther Webber in Politico’s delicious London Playbook reports the 1922 Committee met on October 19th at the Carlton Club for its centenary. “With exquisite timing, members of the 1922 executive met for dinner at the Carlton Club last night to mark 100 years since Conservative MPs assembled to demand withdrawal from the Tory-Liberal coalition, resulting in the resignation of David Lloyd George.” The Carlton Club is the SW1 canteen for the Conservative MPs. The 1922 Committee is the Tory caucus watchdog over its leader.
In the post-WWI 1918 election, the first mass electorate returned the coalition of Prime Minister David Lloyd George and his Liberal MP followers (not included were H. Asquith-led Liberals), the Conservative Party headed by New Brunswick-born Arthur Bonar Law, and the Labour Party led by Arthur Henderson (Ramsay MacDonald Labourites in Opposition). See the dissertation on the 1918 election by Dr. O.P. Lippert. Some backbench Tories wanted to ditch Lloyd George, figuring they could win on their own. The Red Tory leadership of Bonar Law and Austen Chamberlain were cautious as to appearing as conspirators.
By 1922, unhappy Tory backbenchers had devised a committee, to be headed by an MP so unlikely for high office as to be un-bribable, that would secretly canvass members as to leaving the coalition. A vote of confidence in the leader would be triggered if a “certain amount” of letters of no confidence were received. The leader might stay in the coalition, but without a party.
The 1922 Committee in time became the Test Selector of the party leader. Sir Graham Brady is the current chair. Committee rules state that the leader of the party can only face a vote of confidence once a year.
The once-a-year rule also applies to a newly elected leader for whom the initial election is deemed a ‘vote of confidence.’ According to this rule, Truss could have avoided a backbench vote of confidence until September 2023. She could remain Prime Minister, even without a party, until a money bill came to a vote. That is unless the 1922 Committee changed its rules, which a not insignificant number of MPs wanted.
The danger in changing the rules: all Tory leaders fear and loathe the 1922 Committee. A chance to defang that thorn in the side would be seized upon. In Canada, when reform-minded MP Michael Chong tried to squeeze a pale shadow of the 1922 Committee into his Reform Act, the leaders’ office was having none of it. The topic returned during Erin O’Toole’s exit. Any party leader would scheme to deny such power to whom P.E. Trudeau called “just nobodies” 50 feet off the Hill. True in Canada: true in the UK.
Liz Truss’s resignation ends the idle talk of “reforming” the 1922 Committee. Her sacrifice strengthens accountability in the Conservative Party and the UK Parliament. She deserves high praise.
For the record, if BB BoJo (bring back Boris Johnson) succeeds, he would start his second premiership with a year’s grace.
A year could see a more stable state of being. Today, Labour is serious but unready. Liberal Democrats are earnest but unwanted. Tories are dazed and unsteady. Some down-time free from crisis mis-management is needed to return the Commons to its higher purpose.