View from the 1922: Graham Brady on Europe, boundaries and dealing with Dave
From his corner office high up on the fourth floor of Portcullis House, Graham Brady has an enviable view over Parliament Square and the Palace of Westminster.
Not only is it an impressive vista, but there are practical benefits too. Brady is often first to know if any big protests are taking place. And fellow MPs have been known to descend on his office to find out what is happening on such occasions, he reveals with a broad smile.
The chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee is reluctant to describe his prime parliamentary location as a perk of the job, but there’s no doubt that Brady is a man whose needs should be taken care of this parliament.
The member for Altrincham and Sale may have a lower public profile than many of his colleagues, but he is now one of the most important men in the Commons. With a majority of only 12, David Cameron knows he cannot afford to alienate Brady and his troops on the Tory backbenches. And the fact that the prime minster invited the 1922 chairman into Downing Street for talks on the morning after the general election is a clear indication of the clout that Brady will have over the next five years.
"It is a very welcome sign that David Cameron recognised the importance of engaging constructively with backbench colleagues by asking me to come and talk to him so early on the 8th," says Brady.
The Tory MP prides himself on not divulging the detail of his discussions with Cameron, but he is happy to disclose that they talked about “the importance of making a majority government with a small majority work as effectively as possible”.
He adds: “That means good communication. It means involving colleagues as early as possible in the decision making process and hopefully finding ways to draw the views of colleagues out earlier in the process, before policy questions have reached a critical point.”
It’s a strikingly optimistic tone from the 1922 chair, when compared with some of the grumblings coming from the Tory backbenches this time last year. So does Brady feel he has been given clear a signal that the prime minster will pay more attention to his backbenchers than he did in the last parliament?
Ever the diplomat, he notes that "the prime minister did put considerable effort into contact with backbench colleagues" last time around. But he maintains that having the Liberal Democrats also in power created problems.
"I think a lot of the difficulty many of us would have perceived was in many ways a structural one. In the coalition the key decision making body was the quad. When coalition was decided by the quad there wasn’t an awful lot you could do, it was difficult to adjust it… I think that often led to a degree of frustration on the part of colleagues that it was very difficult to influence policy development.
"I think we all understand that in this parliament with a Conservative majority in some ways it’s easier, but because of the size of the majority it’s going to take serious effort on the part of the whole party to try and make it work."
The recent elections to the 1922 saw Brady returned unopposed for his second stint as chairman of the committee, with Cheryl Gillan and Charles Walker backing him up in the position of vice chairman. The committee also has a number of new executive members on board.
For some Tory MPs, the 1922 has long had something of a rightward slant. "The suspicion is that the officers and the executive don’t always reflect the party," says one backbencher. But it’s a charge that Brady disputes, insisting that the committee now has a "good spectrum of views and experience".
Either way, over the new few years Tory MPs will be looking to Brady to bat for them on a range of issues, with Europe towards the top of the list.
The prime minister this week stoked confusion on the question of whether cabinet ministers would get a free vote on the EU referendum. He denied saying ministers will be forced to back his stance or quit their jobs, insisting that he had been calling for backing during the negotiations, not the vote itself.
Brady is clear that a free vote is the right approach but he also suggests that ministers should be free to campaign for a UK exit if they wish.
He says: "I see this as part of a wider question of achieving effective party management, particularly in the context of the referendum on EU membership. But I think it runs wider than that through the course of the parliament. It is generally better to work with the grain, to engage colleagues, than to try to force them into places where they can’t go.
"And in terms of the referendum and certainly the process of healing that needs to take place after a big debate of that sort, I think it’s easier the more space people are given to express their honest deeply held convictions….
"I think the broad approach which is being taken by the leader and the whips office is a very collegiate approach which is showing a real willingness to work with colleagues, and perhaps in some ways a lighter touch approach to whipping which is more about encouragement than it is about instruction.
"I think that is very very welcome. I think it’s something which is appropriate to the age in which we live and the kind of Members of Parliament that we have. And I think that an enlightened approach to whipping in the context of the referendum would be of a peace with that."
Asked about his own voting intentions, Brady maintains that there needs to be a "profound change" in Britain’s relationship with the European Union.
He doesn’t go as far as saying he will vote to leave the EU, but appears to leave the door open.
"I want to see a relationship which is focused much more on trade and less of the political structures. I don’t think we should be a part of a justice and home affairs framework at EU level, for instance. I hope that we will negotiate a new arrangement which has that degree of flexibility."
He is also open to the idea of James Dyson leading the No campaign, as some have suggested.
"He certainly has credibility," says Brady. "Obviously he’s an impressive British businessman who can speak with considerable authority on his experience of running a successful business and one which trades globally."
While Europe may be the obvious area where tensions could occur, it is not the only one. Brady is also sceptical about the plan included in the Conservative manifesto to enact a boundary review that would reduce the size of the Commons. While the move would be to the electoral advantage of the party, a number of Tory MPs would be made redundant, and many more would lose key chunks of their current constituencies.
"The most important thing is to achieve fair boundaries. I think it was outrageous that the Liberal Democrats chose to vote against the achievement of fairness in parliamentary boundaries," says Brady.
But he is also standing in solidarity with those colleagues who could see their constituencies disappear as they know them.
"Whilst it’s important to get the fairest outcome, it’s also wise to be sympathetic to colleagues and to communities that might not want a particular set of boundaries. And certainly as a homegrown who grew up and was educated in Altrincham and represents Altrincham and Sale, for an MP like me I would only want to represent Altrincham and Sale. So I think it is right to be respectful of colleagues’ concerns."
It may be a long shot, but Brady suggests that the plans could be put on hold until some big constitutional questions have been settled.
"We are also facing a complicated debate about the future balance of the United Kingdom as a whole. We’re embarking on English Votes for English Laws, we are seeing more powers devolved to Scotland and to Wales, we‘re also seeing more power devolution to the great cities. So there is a big constitutional mix and I think there is a case for including the final shape and size of the House of Commons in that mix."
Brady entered the Commons in 1997 at the relatively tender age of 29. The Salford-born grammar schoolboy went on to hold a number of important shadow ministerial briefs in the opposition years before resigning from the front bench in 2007 amid a row over the party's attitude towards grammar schools.
Before becoming an MP, Brady worked in public affairs and he remains an unabashed advocate for the industry, despite the various lobbying scandals that have occurred in recent years.
"Good lobbying is mostly about information. It’s mostly about making sure that people are put in touch with the right people to whom they need to make their case,” he says. “I think people often misunderstand it as being about trading favours, or people imagine there’s some kind of corrupt underworld of lobbying. Well, if there ever was in this country I don’t think there is now."
These days, Brady has the kind of access to the prime minister that corporate lobbyists can only dream of. So what approach does he take to lobbying David Cameron?
"I’ve always been completely candid. That’s why it’s so important to have a northern MP as chair of the 1922 Committee," he says, with what may or may not be a mischievous glint in his eye.
Brady presses on: "And I think that David Cameron will tell you that I’m always straightforward and also that he doesn’t read the contents of our discussions in the press, which I think is something he has come to value over the course of the last five years."
Will he tell Cameron the hard truths he may not want to hear? "I tell him what I think and I have always tried to give an honest and dispassionate sense of the spectrum of views and the weight of opinion across the parliamentary party as well," says Brady.
"And I think it would fair to say I’ve often been quite accurate in my assessment of the spectrum of opinion."
Some in the Tory ranks wonder why Brady has not been made a minister, while others expect to see him in government before long. "I can imagine him in BIS or Defence. He would make a very good minister of state in the Home Office, dealing with the police," says one Tory MP.
Tory sources suggest that Brady held discussions with Cameron about a senior government job last parliament, but it didn’t happen because the MP’s "price was too high". It is understood that he was not offered a top job this time around by Cameron.
Brady prefers to look ahead and quizzed on his next move, he does not rule out taking a government post at some point. But for now he is quite happy to deal with the prime minister as chairman of the 1922 Committee.
“It is an interesting role, possibly more so this parliament than in the last. I think it gives some access and possible influence and involvement at a senior level, and also allows a degree of independence of thought and action that I value,” he says.
"So while not ruling out the possibility of serving in the government in the future, I’m very happy doing what I’m doing and anticipate continuing with it for the foreseeable future if colleagues are kind enough to continue to want me."