Westminster is filled with plotters but nobody has the numbersby Sunder Katwala / September 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
The first rule of politics is being able to count, said Lyndon B Johnson. Applying LBJ’s rule to Westminster reveals this to be the season of insufficient coalitions. What explains the curious cocktail of political volatility and stalemate is that many plots are afoot, but nobody’s numbers quite add up.
This is true when you look at internal Conservative scheming, but also when you look at the way forward on Brexit.
Consider the first. Conservative backbenchers speculate as to whether 48 of their number will write to Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922, obliging him to call a confidence vote in the prime minister. Speculators guess that he may have 36 in his desk already. The European Research Group (ERG) frequently briefs that it could find the numbers.
But a no confidence vote is no use without enough support to bring down the PM. The number that matters is not 48 but 158—or more than half of Conservative MPs voting in the ballot. Defeating a no confidence vote defuses the threat, giving the party leader 12 months’ immunity from another contest.
The PM could well survive such a vote, despite not having the confidence of most of her MPs, if they were asked whether she should fight the next election. Ironically, Theresa May survived after losing her majority in the snap election because pro-Brexit backbenchers rallied around when a coup bid was declared on the party’s moderate wing. The roles are now reversed, so that those who plotted against her last summer would save her this Christmas, if it was the ERG who moved against her.
So May can survive as party leader, as long as she accepts that she should go, voluntarily, probably next year.
An open leadership contest, probably in 2019, changes the maths again. The magic number drops to 106 because MPs choose the top two candidates, so having over one-third of MPs in the last three guarantees a place on the ballot. Boris Johnson is often considered a frontrunner, but that total looks a tall order for the former foreign secretary, who is more popular with party members than his fellow MPs.
The maths of the decisive Brexit moments in the commons looks equally deadlocked.
There is still a commons majority for Brexit: the number of Conservatives actively opposed…