1922 and all that
Ninety years ago this morning the last Liberal-Conservative peace time coalition government imploded. Lloyd George resigned as Prime Minister, never to return to power. Austen Chamberlain was replaced by Bonar Law and has his place in history as the only Tory leader of the 20th century never to be Prime Minister. A month later the Conservative party won an overwhelming victory in a general election. Within two years the Liberal Party had been eclipsed by the new Labour Party as the main alternative to the Tories.
Are there any echoes from 90 years ago? I’m sure there’ll be some Tory MPs who would like to see a repeat of the events of 19 October 1922 when Tory backbenchers met at the Carlton Club and voted to end the coalition. But they are a small minority, mainly people never keen on Cameron’s leadership of their party. The stronger echo is the flexing of back bench power to steer the leadership. This is much stronger in the current Tory Party than in the Liberal Democrats. This is despite the fact that my party is supposed to be the more democratic.
The new Conservative MPs elected in the 1922 election formed a committee, soon dubbed the 1922 Committee that is with us to this day. It was the 1922 committee that removed Iain Duncan Smith in 2003. Tory backbenchers elect their chairman (and man is right there) and also leaders of several sub committees. They speak for backbench opinion in the Commons chamber and the media and supposedly keep ministers in touch with colleagues.
The Liberal Democrats, having been out of government for so long, had no structures for reconciling backbench and ministerial opinion. So in June 2010 Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg set up backbench committees for Lib Dem MPs not in government, joined by Peers, which would have seemed an odd concept to the 1920s Liberal Party. Since then I have been co Chair of the Treasury and Business Committee, performing the same role as John Redwood, Chairman of the Economic Affairs Committee of the 1922 Committee. But the joke among several Tory MPs is that I have more access to government ministers…
The Lib Dems, inside Parliament and among members in the country, are still getting used to being a party of government. We’ve felt the exhilaration of power and tasted the vitriol of unpopularity. We’re going through a period of rapid transition from perennial opposition and pressure group mentality to being one of the three natural parties of government. The relationship between colleagues in government and those outside is still evolving, with each backbench chair performing the role in different ways. Bringing the public finances into balance and getting the economy onto stable growth are at the heart of the coalition. So I have adhered to the “Treasury view” while carving out a niche campaigning on ethical capitalism, against tax avoidance and pro consumer power.
Maybe in time Lib Dem backbenchers will have a 2010 committee. It sounds a bit odd now. But I guess ninety years ago nobody thought “the 1922” would have an enduring political meaning.