Elections to the Tory backbench 1922 Committee are taking place today, with allegations of interference from Downing Street and increasing fractures over alleged disloyalty towards David Cameron dominating debate among MPs.
What sounds at first glance like a Westminster village story has the potential to shape the remainder of the Parliament and Cameron's administration. Tories are wrestling between remaining loyal to Cameron despite unhappiness with the coalition agenda, and openly criticising the prime minister for getting distracted over House of Lords reform and other Lib Dem priorities.
These elections to the senior positions on the 1922 Committee will determine which of these factions has the authority to speak on behalf of backbenchers. It's obvious that Cameron has had a wobbly period since mid-March, and the voices from the backbenches criticising him have grown ever louder.
Until today Cameron critics have held many of the top positions on the 1922, but Tory MPs elected in May 2010 are increasingly asserting their position, having spent the past couple of years getting their feet under the table. They're largely loyal to Cameron and are fed up with older Tories on the right of the party criticising the leadership.
This acrimony came to a head last week during a meeting of the 1922, where loyalists openly attacked serial Cameron critics like Nadine Dorries and Peter Bone.
Those unhappy with the sniping at Cameron largely make up the 301 group, a band of Tories who want to modernise the party and focus on securing a majority at the next election. 301 is the number of seats the Conservatives will need to achieve this, assuming the number of MPs in the Commons is cut by 50 next time under coalition plans.
Recently the 301 Group drew up a "slate" of candidates who they hoped would eject the old guard from senior positions on the 1922 Committee, but a state of near-civil war has existed among backbenchers since Downing Street appeared to tacitly endorse those candidates.
Some of them were invited Number 10 recently, a move which inflamed resentment among the old guard. George Osborne addressed one of their meetings last week - something he claimed was a long-standing appointment, despite it coming so close to these elections.
Even modernisers worry that the strategy may have backfired. "There is growing disquiet about slates," one young Tory MP told HuffPost on Wednesday morning.
Mark Pritchard, an outgoing secretary of the 1922 and a frequent critic of the coalition, has held his counsel about the elections so far. But he told HuffPost on Wednesday morning: "Downing Street should spend more time trying to fix the economy and less time trying to fix the 1922 elections."
There were further signs that putting modernisers on the "slate" had backfired on Tuesday, when Tracey Crouch, a moderniser who is mostly but not always loyal to the front-bench, stood down from the 1922 executive. She was said to be concerned at being seen as part of attempts by David Cameron to influence the committee, which has always remained fiercely independent of the Tory leadership.
Many Tories would be happy enough to get rid of Christopher Chope, who holds one of the secretary positions and is a frequent critic of David Cameron and George Osborne. The 301 would dearly like to see Karen Bradley and Charlie Elphicke take over the Secretary posts.
Nick de Bois, a Tory who is seen by some as a compromise candidate between the 301 and the die-hards , tweeted this morning:
But after the nominations for the 1922 were published yesterday there were concerns that the combination of the "slate" plus the alleged interference from Downing Street may have backfired. The Guardian reports that the "old-guard" feel more confident because those tactics fly in the face of the spirit of the 1922.
Speaking to HuffPost on Wednesday morning Jackie Doyle-Price, the MP for Thurrock, dismissed claims that having a slate was something new in 1922 elections. "Last time there were elections, the No Turning Back Group had a slate, the Cornerstone group had a slate. It's not unusual for MPs to want to make sure they're represented, now they've had two years to develop a perspective.
"At the moment the executive is dominated by people who were elected before 2010," she added. "The 1922 needs to play a different role when we're in coalition, as opposed to when we're in opposition or a single party government. It's got to play a role in maintaining the identity of the party and at the moment it's behaving like a trade union for Tory backbenchers. It has to do a lot more than that, now."
Many moderate Tories will fell torn as they cast their votes. They'll want to see the dinosaurs among the backbenchers cleared out of positions of power, but will worry that doing so will be seen as potentially robbing ordinary MPs of their independent voice. It's hard to see any outcome which will quell the squabbling among backbenchers, over what the party should stand for and sound like.
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