My interview with Graham Brady from Cherwell. Not one of my best, having not got much original material out of him – a common difficulty when you find yourself in agreement with so much of it.
Standing from his corner office in Portcullis House, Graham Brady recalls watching the Diamond Jubilee procession from our viewpoint two weeks earlier. With a vista that takes in Westminster Palace, Parliament Square and the imperial marble of Whitehall, they’re certainly worse places to hold down a job. Not that it’s just any old job. As Chairman of the 1922 Committee, Brady is probably the most influential Tory outside the Cabinet, and in practice exercises far more power than a few of those in it. He has Cameron on speed-dial and the Tory leader would be unwise to screen his call.
If Number Ten is the brains of the Conservative Party, the ’22 is its heart and soul. It represents a spectrum of backbench opinion with an eighteen member executive changing periodically. Only government ministers are excluded.The most recent ballot saw the inclusion of prominent backbenchers into the executive including Priti Patel, the fiery right-winger. Brady himself understands it as ‘the plumbing that connects the leader of the party with the backbench membership’, and though his chairmanship is barely older than the Coalition itself, he sees his role as ‘more important when the party is in government, and more important than ever now that there is a Coalition’.
To those who know him, Brady is seen as friendly, principled and not obviously ambitious. It is certainly easy to warm to his avuncular manner. When I make a bad joke – a reoccurring issue in my interviews – he laughs generously. After the interview he takes 5 minutes to let me out of Parliament personally, whereas most MPs would delegate the job to an intern. Not that there was any special chemistry between us by the way, I’m sure it’s run of the mill stuff for him. But his easy-going charm is one of the explanations for Brady’s success from unremarkable beginnings.
Born in Trafford to an accountant father and a secretary mother, Brady is defined by his education. In August he told the New Statesman that ‘I owe my career to grammar school’. From our conversation it was evident that he is spending that career repaying the favour. An alumnus of the small Altrincham Grammar School in Greater Manchester, Brady talks of ‘a great loyalty to my old school’. His maiden speech in Parliament opposed the abolition of the Assisted Places scheme, one of New Labour’s first directives that crippled England’s grammar schools. In Westminster Brady’s name remains synonymous with the grammar schools debate. He was serving as shadow Europe Minister when David Cameron unequivocally came out against grammar schools in 2007. ‘There are times when something is sufficiently important that it is imperative to take a stand’ Brady muses; walking out of the shadow cabinet was his first break with a leadership not in tune with his distinct flavour of conservatism.
He is enthusiastic about Michael Gove’s Education Department however, which since 2010 has approved thousands of new ‘Academy’ schools – ones autonomous from Local Authority Control – and hundreds of radical ‘Free Schools’. Yet as a firm supporter of selective education he is clear that it isn’t enough. Toby Young, who Cherwell interviewed in May, told me his aim in setting up the West London Free School was to ‘create a grammar school ethos’. Brady describes Toby and the efforts of other educational reformers such as Katherine Birbalsingh as ‘fantastic’. However ‘what they won’t do is create a grammar school education’; that requires selection, pure and simple.
Whilst ostensibly remaining against new grammar schools, the Coalition- at the behest of local parents and government – has given the green light to new grammar schools via the back door. Kent County Council has approved a new ‘satellite school’ in Sevenoaks, Kent, officially tied to an existing school 10 miles away in Tonbridge but to all intents and purposes a new school – the first in 50 years. I ask Brady if this stealthy method is the way forward. Thus ensues the longest pause for thought of our interview (still only a paltry few seconds). Carefully he described the move as a ‘small but significant way forward’. The effect will be marginal, but the idea, articulated by Brady is that ‘demand [for new grammars] and pressure in other areas’ will increase. Though the government remains officially wedded to the comprehensive ideal – something the Lib Dems won’t let them stray far from – grammar school campaigners are increasingly pushing on an open door, presenting a ‘very important challenge’ to the pre-New Labour educational orthodoxy.
The other weeping wound of the Conservative Party lies in European policy; here Brady has also dipped his hands in blood – my phrase, not his, of course. When 79 Tory MPs defied a 3 line whip last autumn to vote in favour of an EU in-out referendum, Brady was one of them. Bizarrely he refuses to acknowledge a conflict at all – ‘what you call a rebellion, I call members of parliament acting independently’. ‘Same difference?’ I counter but he isn’t having any of it. An allusion to Churchill is illuminating however. Quoting the sainted Conservative he describes loyalty as owed ‘first to country, then constituency and then party’. It’s a neat way out of explaining lapses of party loyalty: appeal to patriotism, voters and Churchill. Except I can’t help thinking there’s something to it. He just doesn’t come across as at all tribal – the sort of guy who would otherwise support Manchester City providing they weren’t playing the more local Manchester United.
Explaining the relationship between the ’22 and the Executive Brady is clear: ‘we work best when we work privately’. All of his conversations with Cameron are confidential, ‘frank’ and ‘leak proof’. Poisoned by disloyalty his words have no power. so doing Brady avoids the headlines but retains the Prime Minister’s ear. As chair of the ’22 his job is nudge, wink and cajole Cameron on behalf of backbenchers. But he can’t practice this to destruction; after all, a Coalition full of ‘wets’ remains better than one rendered impotent by rebellion. So the relationship goes both ways; instead of whispering sweet nothings into the ear of the Tory Right he tells them when it’s to swallow the bitter pill of Coalition consensus. This is Brady’s essence. He understands his role as keeping the show on the road, rather than stealing it for himself or some swivel-eyed right-wing cause. As such he’s perhaps the Coalition’s greatest asset, though he’d be loath to admit it.