High in Sir Graham Brady’s office, a poster in War Office typeface cries out: “Freedom is in peril. Defend it with all your might.” It’s been there years but it seems singularly appropriate for today’s parliamentary battle royal over the Brady Amendment, a landmark bid by MPs to stop Boris Johnson imposing emergency coronavirus measures by decree.
“It’s very easy for government to get into bad habits,” said Brady, when asked how he felt about the latest tranche of new Covid offences backed by eye-watering fines, which came into force on Monday without a single minute of debate in the Palace of Westminster.
“It doesn’t surprise me that government, having had the luxury for six months of doing things without proper parliamentary scrutiny, has got into the habit of it. It just underlines the importance of breaking that habit and finding a new modus operandi.”
Sir Graham, 53, speaks quietly and carefully, as befits the chairman of the 1922 Committee, one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes figures in SW1A. The shop steward of Conservative backbenchers, he usually operates out of public view. Today, however, Brady has come out of the shadows to lead an extraordinary challenge to the Prime Minister. Backed by at least 55 Conservative rebels and senior Labour MPs like John Cryer, his opposite number, Harriet Harman and John Spellar, he is pushing an amendment that would require such measures to be debated and voted on in future.
“All governments find parliamentary scrutiny inconvenient,” explained Brady. “Of course they do — it’s meant to be inconvenient! It’s there to pose difficult questions and to make sure things have been thought through before they come into force. That makes the life of ministers more difficult. They have to be better briefed, they have to have better answers. That’s what Parliament is for.”
He is confident the Government will back down to the Brady Bunch, whether or not Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle allows a vote on the amendment. He said ministers who believe the amendment cannot be allowed for procedural reasons are wrong. “I took advice from a very senior clerk who drafted the amendment with me,” he revealed. “The clerk’s advice is that the amendment is selectable.”
Brady believes the scale of the Tory rebellion — more than enough to demolish Johnson’s 80-seat majority — will persuade the PM to make a concession and “give Parliament some of its confidence back”. However he is dismayed that “just 90 minutes of debate” has been set aside to approve the extension of emergency powers for six more months, which he calls “wrong”. He says that former Supreme Court judge Baroness Hale made “an important comment — it struck home” when she said Parliament had surrendered its role by enacting such sweeping powers. He is critical of some of the pandemic measures, which he says have lacked consistency and are confusing. On the 10pm curfew for restaurants and pubs, he says the damage to businesses and pictures of people packing streets at the new closing time “inevitably raises the question of whether it might do more harm than good”.
He worries that the £1,000 (rising to £10,000) fines for people who break self-isolation risk injustice. “There must be a concern that a significant part of the population would be unable to pay a fine of £10,000 or £4,000. A lot of people are on reduced earnings, a lot of businesses are just scraping by. I think it is certainly worth thinking through the potential consequences.”
Was Johnson in danger of becoming one of the control freaks that he once attacked? Brady laughed, but his answer suggested concern. “All those things about being too controlling, the tendency towards the nanny state, all things that we instinctively oppose, I think we need to look very carefully at how we approach the current crisis.” Sir Graham does not resemble a rebel. His smile is never far away. “He’s just always cheerful,” whispered Victoria, his wife of 28 years, a former TV journalist who works as his senior assistant. They met at Durham University, where both chaired the student Conservative association.
Brady has a long track record of taking on authority. In 2010 he resigned as shadow minister for Europe in protest at David Cameron’s opposition to grammar schools. He “never” regretted coming off the greasy pole. “There’s no point in being in Parliament if you don’t stand for something,” he pointed out. The reaction from constituents in Altrincham & Sale West was an eye-opener. “People would cross the road to shake my hand,” he says. “What really took me aback was that about 20 per cent of those who pumped my hand and slapped me on the back said, ‘I completely disagree with you about grammar schools but thank God one of you believes in something.’”
As the ‘22 chairman, he had the “unpleasant” task of telling Theresa May her party wanted her to stand down last year. For months he was custodian of private no-confidence letters from up to 48 MPs needed to trigger her ousting. What had he done with those letters? “I think in due course I probably need to get around to shredding them,” he teased.
Astonishingly, the letters are still in his office safe. Brady said he would never reveal them or their authors — who probably include Johnson and his circle — but added: “I do think that one day when I get around to writing my memoirs they might be helpful as a little memory jogger of exactly what happened.” The memoirs could be juicy.
All governments find parliamentary scrutiny inconvenient. Of course they do — it’s meant to be
Had he received any letters since the general election expressing no confidence in the current PM? A sphinx-like smile: “I never comment on whether I have received letters or not.”
How did he respond to Rishi Sunak’s statement last week that the country must learn to “live without fear”? Brady enthused: “I think it is very important. A very large number of people were actually frightened by the [lockdown] message. I think we’re still seeing quite large numbers of people living their lives constrained, not just by government rules, but by that fear that was engendered.”
Does he see Sunak as a future Tory leader? “I think he’s been very impressive.” Brady cautioned against tax hikes in Sunak’s postponed Budget. “If taxation were to push more businesses into administration, or make it impossible for families to afford to pay their mortgages, that would be a very undesirable outcome.” Did he agree with Sir Desmond Swayne who claimed the PM had been “reprogrammed by Sage” and was dominated by scientific advisers Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance? Brady laughed, but stressed the need for new laws to be viewed “in a balanced way”.
Young people were “fit and healthy” yet were being “held under virtual house arrest” at university. They should be allowed to get on with their lives. “I think it would be sensible to shift more towards an approach that prioritises protecting the most vulnerable people,” he said.
Should Whitty and Vallance have held the No 10 press conference where they brandished projections of 50,000 cases a day? Brady felt specialist health and science correspondents should have been allowed to ask questions. Were the two scientists getting too powerful? “We need checks and balances, and we need good process that ensures that people don’t overstep the mark, that they don’t make decisions based only on one set of metrics,” he said.
“I’m sure that Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty think they are doing the very best that they can, but we should make sure that people who are making those projections are questioned, and we should make sure that Government ministers making decisions on those projections are subject to proper scrutiny in Parliament."
Large numbers are living their lives constrained, not just by government rules, but the fear that was engendered
Had he downloaded the NHS App. “I haven’t yet. I might wait until the bugs have been ironed out,” he grinned. A few hours later he texted to say he had downloaded it. He dismissed the fuss over the day the Prime Minister met 50 MPs at the weekly ‘22 in a room labelled with a maximum socially distanced capacity of 29.
“Committee Room 14 is like a cathedral,” he said. “What concerns me is that Parliament is still working on the same two-metre rule that we asked the rest of the country to move away from some time ago.” Did Brady think Johnson would still be Prime Minister at the next election. “Yes,” he replied instantly and firmly. “I just hope the next election is in three and a half years’ time.”
First, however, the PM should stop trying to rule by decree. “For me, the important thing is to recognise that sometimes unwelcome and extraordinary measures may have to be taken,” said Brady. “But government should always approach them by saying, ‘what is the maximum amount of freedom that people can retain and the minimum level of interference from the state?.’ If things come through that filter, then we’re going to be in a better place as a country.”