Newport by-election - how the 1922 committee was formed - the last Liberal led Government

The 1922 Committee was formed following the return of Conservative MP at the election held in Newport in 1922. 

The by-election held in the parliamentary constituency of Newport on 18 October 1922. The by-election attracted special attention, both at the time and since, as it was seen as a crucial electoral test of the viability of the Lloyd George Coalition Government, formed of followers of David Lloyd George with the Conservative Party, the latter of which contained an increasing number of members who wished to leave the coalition and regain the party’s independence.

In the 1918 general election the seat inherited both Monmouth’s Liberal tradition and its MP, with Lewis Haslam winning as a “Coalition Liberal” supporting the Coalition Government and endorsed by both the Liberal and Conservative parties. Locally Conservatives in Wales despised the coalition and regarded the electoral pact as valid for one election only. They were further enraged when Haslam did not give support for Conservative measures despite their support.

The key breach came over the 1921 Licensing Bill which raised the question of whether Monmouthshire was part of Wales or England. This had become a particularly significant local issue, with the Liberals tending to the former position and the Conservatives to the latter. The Bill included Monmouthshire with Wales and so threatened early closing, whilst Haslam’s support for the temperance movement provoked further hostility. Consequently the local Conservatives moved to adopt an official candidate of their own for the next general election, choosing Reginald Clarry on July 26, 1922. He received backing from the anti-Coalition wing of the Conservative Party, including endorsements in the Morning Post. His candidature was not well received by the Conservative leadership at Westminster, with Austen Chamberlain, leader of the Conservative MPs, requesting that Conservative Central Office should not aid Clarry’s campaign, but crucially Clarry was still the official party nominee for the seat and it would be dangerous for any leader of the party to provoke a row by repudiating the official nominee.

Despite being traditionally seen as a by-election that determined the fate of the Coalition, the election largely ignored it. All three candidates denounced its continued existence and focused on both what would replace the Coalition and local issues.

One of the biggest issues revolved around alcohol, with the Conservative campaign opposing the Licensing Bill whilst both the Labour and Liberal campaigns regularly held meetings in the Temperance Hall and had strong support from prominent temperance campaigners. Clarry sought the traditional working-class support for the Conservatives that existed in Newport on the matter. The candidates argued over local identity, with Moore claiming to be the only local man whilst Clarry hailed from Swansea and Bowen from London. Clarry countered, both by using a letterhead on all literature with a Newport address and by stressing his knowledge of industry and Newport’s reliance upon it.

The question of which candidate was best placed to win proved crucial in what was regarded as a genuine three-way marginal contest, as this would determine which candidate would receive the votes opposed to them. Many expected Bowen to win for Labour and both the Conservative and Liberal supporting press tried to argue that the other candidate was out of the running. By the end of the campaign most expected Bowen to win with Clarry in second place and Moore a clear third.

Austin Chamberlain had been facing a growing rebellion amongst Conservative MPs over the Conservatives’ continued support for the Coalition, and so had called a meeting of MPs at the Carlton Club to decide the issue. Expecting a Labour victory in Newport, the meeting was scheduled for October 19 in the hope that the result would persuade many Conservatives of the merits of remaining in alliance with the Liberals as the only way to keep Labour out of power.

The Carlton Club meeting took place nine hours after the declaration and many interpreted the result as a rejection of the Coalition, even though locally it appeared more a rejection of Labour and a vote for the Conservative candidate. The extent to which the by-election result alone influenced the outcome of the Conservative Party meeting is debated, but the meeting voted by 187:87 to leave the Coalition, with Austen Chamberlain resigning the leadership immediately afterwards.