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The 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers is 100 years old on 18 April 2023 – but the MPs who attended its founding meeting would have been astonished it still exists a century later, and even more by its prominence and political importance. Why and how was the Committee created? And what accounted for its survival, when many apparently similar groups fell by the wayside?
Emeritus Professor of Modern British History, University of Leicester
Professor Stuart Ball
Emeritus Professor of Modern British History, University of Leicester
Stuart Ball CBE is author and editor of 14 books on British political history, including Portrait of a Party: The Conservative Party in Britain 1918-1945 (Oxford University Press, 2013) and The Advent of Democracy: The Impact of the 1918 Reform Act on British Politics (Wiley, 2018).
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The 1922 Committee of Conservative backbench MPs now oversees Conservative leadership contests, and the party’s leadership instability and changes of recent years have seen the Committee (and its Executive Committee) repeatedly thrust into the spotlight.
But, when the Committee held its founding meeting on 18 April 1923, its establishment was barely noticed, and its founders did not think they had created anything of particular significance or longevity.
There are many misunderstandings about the origins and name of the 1922 Committee, which are often wrongly attributed to the meeting of Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club on 19 October 1922 which caused the fall of David Lloyd George’s coalition Government. In fact, the connection is only indirect, and none of the founders of the 1922 Committee could have been present at the Carlton Club.
Lloyd George’s resignation was followed by the formation of a Conservative Government led by Andrew Bonar Law, who immediately called a General Election to be held on 15 November. The Conservative Party won with an overall majority of 73, and 111 of the 344 Conservative MPs were new entrants to the House of Commons.
The 1922 General Election was the first to be held on normal party lines since the 1918 Representation of the People Act had massively increased the electorate, from 7.7 million in 1910 to 20.8 million in 1922. With government having taken a larger role in economic and social affairs since the First World War, the new MPs were conscious that voters expected more from them than before and that they needed to show their effectiveness if they were to keep their seats.
However, in the early months of the Parliament, Gervais Rentoul, the MP for Lowestoft, was far from alone in feeling “lost in the maze of parliamentary procedure”. He was one of a group of new MPs who held an open meeting of the 1922 intake in Committee Room 8 on 18 April 1923 to discuss ways of tackling the problem. Rentoul’s suggestion of forming a committee was adopted, and he was elected its chairman.
At a second meeting held a week later on 23 April, it was formally resolved that the group be called “the Conservative Private Members (1922) Committee”, and that its purpose was “mutual co-operation and assistance” so that the new MPs could “take a more active interest and part in parliamentary life”. Officers and an executive committee were elected, and it was decided to hold short meetings each Monday at 6:00pm during the parliamentary Session. These were primarily educational, with a series of addresses by the Chief Whip, Party Chairman and some minor Cabinet Ministers. By the time of the summer recess in July 1923, 68 MPs of the 1922 intake had paid the small subscription to join the Committee.
There had been many previous groups of MPs based on a particular cohort or political issue, all of which faded away as issues changed, or lost cohesiveness as their Members gained seniority and office.
The survival and development into permanence of the 1922 Committee was due to two factors:
the benevolent support of the Whips; and
the unexpected occurrence of two more General Elections in the 18 months after the Committee was founded.
The Whips generally viewed such groups with caution, as potential sources of faction and intrigue, but from the start the 1922 Committee affirmed its loyalty to the party leadership and sought the active guidance of the Whips. The second meeting on 23 April issued an invitation to the Chief Whip, Leslie Wilson, to address the next gathering, which he accepted. Wilson endorsed the limited aims of the Committee, gave “some words of caution and advice”, and urged his audience to approach the Whips first if they had difficulties or doubts. He sought to engage the eager new MPs in constructive ways, and soon after he asked the Committee to provide three Members to keep debates going through the dinner period each Tuesday. From March 1924 the practice was formalised of a junior Whip attending each meeting to provide guidance on the business of the coming week. In this way the Committee began life as a useful channel of communication from the party leadership downwards, rather than the reverse.
The 1922 Committee had barely found its feet when Bonar Law’s successor as Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, unexpectedly called a General Election for 6 December 1923. Baldwin’s attempt to secure a mandate for protectionism resulted in defeat and the coming-into-office of the first Labour Government in January 1924. Forty members of the 1922 Committee lost their seats, whilst the number of new-entrant Conservative MPs was only 32. The surviving members of the Committee still felt like newcomers, and took the obvious step of replenishing their numbers by inviting the 1923 intake to join, with an amendment of the name to “the Conservative Private Members (1922-1923) Committee”.
The minority Labour Government did not last long and the following General Election on 29 October 1924 saw a Conservative landslide that brought 112 new MPs into the House. The decision to open membership of the Committee to them was a formality, and by the end of the first Session of the new Parliament the Committee’s membership had reached 185. MPs elected before 1922 were now a minority amongst Conservative backbenchers and – after securing the approval of the Chief Whip – in February 1926 the logical step was taken to extend membership of the Committee to all Conservative backbench MPs. At this point, and again in 1929 when the party went into opposition, there was consideration of dropping ‘1922’ from the name, but it was retained due to a combination of familiarity and inertia.
The move from specific-cohorts-only to universal backbench membership was crucial in the 1922 Committee becoming a permanent feature of the Conservative parliamentary party.
The Committee was no longer tied to a specific political generation, and instead would continually renew its membership.
The Committee was also now broadly representative of parliamentary opinion and so did become a useful forum in which this could be expressed in private and communicated upwards. The decision to restrict membership to backbenchers was also vital, as the Committee retained an element of independence and its meetings were not dominated by the front-bench few who had the lion’s share of the limelight in the House.
During the rest of the 1924-29 Parliament the meetings of the 1922 Committee often discussed issues which were controversial within the party and saw lively debate between the left and right wings. However, this declined after the 1929 election defeat, and the 1922 Committee played no significant role during the internal divisions over protectionism and Baldwin’s leadership in 1929-31, India in the early 1930s and foreign policy in the later 1930s. It reverted to its earliest role as an information source, almost becoming a lecture club with an increasing proportion of outside guest speakers. Only a minority of MPs came to the weekly meetings, with average attendance dipping to 17% in the 1937-38 Session, although it rose again as war approached.
The Second World War elevated the 1922 Committee to the significant position that it has retained ever since; it was only during the War, and not before, that the Committee established its importance in the Conservative Party. It is revealing that the first time the party leader addressed one of its meetings was not until 1947.
The Committee was a useful means by which Ministers could confidentially brief MPs, and during the first months of the War attendance rose to a peak of 200. The creation of the coalition Government under Winston Churchill in May 1940 was a crucial stimulus, as the Committee filled the need for a private forum in which Conservative MPs could express their concerns without affecting public morale.
There was particular tension over the dominance of Labour Ministers on the home front and fears that they were promoting a Socialist agenda of “nationalisation by stealth”. With most of the rest of the party organisation in suspension, the 1922 Committee took on the role of defender of the party’s identity and watchdog of its interests; it still vocalised the mainstream view, but with more urgency and effect.
The Committee’s central role was later confirmed in 1965 when it was given trusteeship of the new system of electing the party leader.
1922 Committee minute books, Conservative Party Archive, Bodleian Library
Ball, S., ‘The 1922 Committee: the formative years 1922-1945’, Parliamentary History, vol. 9, issue 1, 1990, pp. 129-157
Goodhart, P. and Branston, U. (1973), The 1922: The Story of the Conservative Backbenchers’ Parliamentary Committee (Macmillan)
Norton, P. (2013), The Voice of the Backbenchers – The 1922 Committee: The First 90 Years, 1923-2013 (Conservative History Group)
Rentoul, G. (1940), Sometimes I Think (Hodder & Stoughton)
Ball, S. (14 April 2023), The 1922 Committee: What are its origins? (Hansard Society blog)
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