Tories beware: Graham Brady is quitting parliament - and preparing his memoirs
The influential chair of the 1922 Committee speaks to The Mill after announcing his surprise retirement from politics. But why is he leaving now?
By Jack Dulhanty & Lucy Tomlinson
It was last Autumn — around the time that he found himself at the centre of the epic meltdown of Liz Truss’s premiership — that Sir Graham Brady decided it was time to go. Brady, best known as the man who appears briefly on the news when the Conservative Party has decided to knife its leader again, only announced his decision to stand down as an MP in Trafford this week, but he says he’s known for months. Last year, the longtime chairman of the 1922 committee of backbench MPs oversaw two Tory leadership contests in quick succession and spent several months in the spotlight as letters of no confidence piled up in his letterbox, as per the party’s rules. After a year like that, it “just seemed like a logical time,” he told The Mill. “I’d had quite a big year. Obviously, a very exciting year — for the public, probably too exciting. And I just thought, well, it really felt like a sort of peak.”
He remembers thinking: “I can’t seriously expect to carry on doing this forever.”
Not only is Brady the-man-to-whom-letters-are-sent, he’s also been the one who knocks on the door of Number 10 to tell Conservative leaders when the party is over. When recent Tory governments have been at their lowest ebb, at their most chaotic, he has arrived at the scene to deliver the final blow on behalf of mutinous MPs. As a result of all that, he’s the man whose diaries many political watchers would most love to read. During major Westminster crises, its common to see people tweeting longingly about the prospect of a blockbuster Brady book. “The ghostwriter for Sir Graham Brady's memoirs has got to be having the time of their fucking life right now,” tweeted one person during Truss’s downfall.
“I hope in the fullness of time Graham Brady publishes a memoir, and it consists purely of an annotated list of how many no-confidence letters he actually had at any point,” fantasised another during the ousting of Theresa May, a nod to Brady’s reputation for absolute discretion. “Graham Brady's memoirs — if full and frank — would be something else,” tweeted a political journalist recently. The Times even got in on the act this morning, publishing a tongue-in-cheek “exclusive peek at the secret diary of Graham Brady”. One entry reads: “I think I am high on envelope adhesive. I seem to have announced that Liz Truss is prime minister.”
Soon we will be able to read the real thing. When Brady spoke to The Mill for this article, his first interview since he announced he would not be contesting the next election in his constituency of Altrincham and Sale West, he all but confirmed a book is in the offing. Will it be the tell-all sensation the Twitterati are expecting? Should his colleagues be fretting? “I don't think they should be nervous about it,” he says, laughing. But more on that in a minute.
Brady, 55, is leaving politics having represented his constituency for a quarter of a century and having chaired “the ‘22” for almost 13 years. A Brexiteer and a creature of the Tory right, he is loved by many of the party’s backbenchers but is seen as unlikely to build a cabinet career from here. In a short statement announcing his decision on Tuesday, he said: “I have decided to bring this fascinating and fulfilling chapter of my life to a close while I am young enough to pursue other opportunities and interests.” His decision “saddened and surprised Westminster in equal measure,” wrote the website POLITICO, which characterised Brady as “the smiling assassin who saw off 4 prime ministers”.
“My association was surprised by it,” Brady says about his announcement this week. “Surprised and, I think, disappointed. I’ve had lots of lovely messages from constituents. And I suppose it’s always the case when you stop doing something, everybody tells you how much they liked you doing it.” Laura Evans, a prominent Conservative in Trafford who battled Andy Burnham for the Greater Manchester mayoralty, says she joined the party because of Brady and is sad to see him quit. “We were obviously really disappointed, really shocked actually,” she told us. Having said that — she may profit from his departure: Evans is one of the names being touted as the Tory candidate to replace Brady in Altrincham and Sale West at the next election. Indeed, she tweeted a photo of herself chatting to Rishi Sunak in Downing Street this week.
Brady says he has waited until a period of Tory harmony to announce his political exit. “I think it’s a relatively stable time, and I was keen not to destabilise things,” he says. As soon as the news broke, plenty of people noted that he is the 22nd Conservative MP to announce they won’t be contesting their seat in the next election, including William Wragg of Hazel Grove, who is Brady’s deputy on the 1922. As you might expect, Brady rejects the image of rats fleeing a sinking ship. “My decision is mine and is entirely separate,” he told us. “It’s not about the state of the Conservative Party, it’s not about Rishi Sunak — I’m a great supporter of the Prime Minister, I think he’s doing a brilliant job. So, I was very keen not to add to a false narrative by suggesting everybody is leaving.”
Still, with Labour 20 points ahead in the polls, the next election is looking dicey for the Tories in Trafford. How do Westminster insiders put it when they’re speaking off the record? “The seat is fucked. That’s going to go for Labour,” says one former lobby hack we contacted this week, who thinks Brady won’t want to join Michael Portillo, Nick Clegg and Ed Balls in the long line of big names brought low at 3am in a local sports hall. “He's a proud man — proud or pompous, there's a very thin line between those things.” How about on the record? Harry Cole, political editor of The Sun, who has covered Brady in parliament for many years, puts it more delicately: "He's reached the peak of his powers. So he might prefer to go out on a high rather than have the humiliation of losing his seat".
“I think what I'd say is my constituency has been… not straightforward,” Brady concedes. What does he mean? In the 2015 general election, he enjoyed his biggest majority of 13,290. Two years later, it was halved to 6,426 and it dropped a couple hundred votes further in 2019. Meaning: this isn’t just about national polling — it’s also about how Trafford itself is changing. When he was first elected in 1997 to Altrincham and Sale West, covering the “leafy” Hale Barns and Bowdon, the seat was a haven of old school Tory affluence. The council was Conservative from 2004 and remained so for 14 years. But more recently, the demographics of the area have been changing.
The runaway success of Manchester in the past decade has filled Trafford up with the kind of cosmopolitan young professionals who now make up one of Labour’s most reliable voting blocks. “The people of Altrincham and Sale West have moved far away from the politics of the Conservative Party,” says Jane Brophy, leader of the local Liberal Democrats and a former MEP, “and from where Graham Brady sits within the Conservative Party. He represents the old establishment, and that's not what people want anymore.”
It’s hard to overstate what a political turnaround that is. For nearly a decade and a half, Trafford was the Conservative Party’s “northern flagship”, a thorn in the side of Labour in the North West. Nowadays, Trafford Council is Labour, with some wards in Brady’s constituency voting Green. Earlier this year at a by-election in Stretford and Urmston, Brady’s neighbouring constituency, Labour took 70% of the vote despite reportedly running its campaign out of the boot of someone’s car (back in 2010, the party got 48.6%). The Tories lost control of the council in 2018 after signing services away to a private firm that couldn’t fulfil them, and have been slipping ever since. “Being a Tory in Trafford is not compatible with being ambitious these days,” as one local activist puts it.
Once deputy head boy of Altrincham Grammar (“I remember hearing that he was a very over-enthusiastic school prefect,” says one near-contemporary), grammar schools have defined Brady’s career. He resigned from his only front bench position under David Cameron after the party chose not to pick a massive fight with the educational establishment by extending grammars. It’s that decision that Brady credits with getting him the job as 1922 chair. “I guess I was first elected to the 1922 committee back in 2010 because colleagues knew that I would be willing to stand up to David Cameron,” he told us. “Because I was the first Conservative MP who did so when the party wobbled in its support for grammar schools.”
Brady was a big supporter of Brexit, despite his seat voting overwhelmingly to remain. And, when it comes to his voting record — like when he voted against letting 3,000 unaccompanied Syrian children into the UK — constituents have been less than impressed.
What message does Brady’s decision to stand down send about the prospects of the Conservative Party? “It's consequential,” says Robert Ford, a well known political scientist at the University of Manchester. “Not just in Brady's seat, but because of the signal it sends to other MPs. And they'll turn around and say: 'well, if Sir Graham doesn't think we have any chance next time, do I really want to stick around?'"
What will Brady turn to next? It's been known for some time in Westminster that he was keeping “long diaries” during his record stretch as 1922 chair. The prospect of reading them is tantalising for Westminster watchers — and alarming for some Tories. “I think I probably will try to write a diary or memoir,” he tells us, revealing his plans for the first time. “I think I've got a unique view.”