If the numbers were published in a close-run contest, Theresa May could be forced to resign—even if she won a majority of her MPs' supportby Tom Clark / July 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
Prime Minister Theresa May updates MPs in the House of Commons, London on the Chequers Brexit plan. Theresa May’s government may be crumbling, but unless she resigns, nobody can directly challenge her. The only way to trigger a Conservative leadership election is by a majority of Conservative MPs voting no-confidence in her—hence all the excited chatter about whether a vote will be triggered. Why so cautious? The Tories were scarred by the damaging way in which Margaret Thatcher went—she was wounded by Michael Heseltine in 1990, but not (immediately) fatally. Instead, she was left to limp on for a short time, before her Cabinet told her that her number was up. The current rules are designed to discourage this sort of humiliating spectacle, by separating the despatch of the old leader from the installation of the new. 159 is the magic number The first step is that 15 per cent of the Parliamentary Conservative Party (currently 48 MPs) must write to Graham Brady, Chair of the Conservative Private Members’ Committee (colloquially known as the 1922 Committee), and say they want a vote. The second is a “do you have confidence in the leader?” Yes/No ballot of all MPs, which is carried by majority. At the moment, 159 MPs would need to vote against May for her to lose. If she’s loses, she’s out, and other candidates can step forward; if she wins, she’s back, and cannot be challenged again for a year. It sounds straightforward and clean, and the whole procedure is meant to admit only two results —“long live the leader” or “the leader is dead.” At least, that’s the idea. Life is rarely so simple. Running the numbers Eurosceptics are muttering a good deal about forcing May out—as indeed have disgruntled Remainers like Ed Vaizey. They have boasted they could easily muster the 48, but have hesitated to send them in because they don’t have the 159. If they did, and any sort of majority votes confidence in May, then she should be more firmly in charge than before. For now, that’s put them off. An awful lot, however, would depend on the numbers. If May had the loyalty of three-quarters or more of her MPs, then she would feel safer than before. If she had even two-thirds she might expect to last a decent while: that is how John Major achieved his “put up or shut up” show-down with John Redwood in 1995, and he lasted another two years until the voters booted him out. But if it slipped much below that, she would be vulnerable. A referendum-style 52 per cent win among a Parliamentary party which is already, because of her general election, in a minority position really wouldn’t be enough. Or, at least, it wouldn’t be if everyone knew she had held on by the skin of her teeth. And if they didn’t? Could the 1922 Committee seek to sit on close numbers, to try and preserve a wounded May? Perhaps in theory. The constitution of the Conservative party doesn’t get into this sort of detail, and it has always been master of its own affairs. And don’t forget that modern democracy came late to the Conservative party: as late as the 1960s leaders emerged in a process laced with more mystery than that which picks Popes, involving unspecified “consultations” with senior suits and indeed Buckingham Palace. But in practice, it’s doubtful that any attempt to keep the numbers quiet would hold. There is only one precedent—when, as opposition leader, Iain Duncan Smith went down to a confidence vote by 90 to 75 MPs. In that case the numbers were published. It would be tricky to argue that they should be kept quiet next time—even if you had any faith that they wouldn’t leak out regardless, which is surely unlikely given the more than restive mood of the Tory party. As a result, I think everyone can proceed on the basis that the numbers would be known. Were I a wavering Tory plotter, I’d likely conclude that it was worth pushing ahead if I were confident I that something north of a third of the MPs would abandon May. In the dire circumstances, I’d have thought that would be enough to finish her—whatever the rulebook may say.