How would the Tories get rid of Cameron?

What the Conservative rule book says about a vote of no confidence and a leadership election.

Tory MP David Ruffley broke cover at the weekend to warn David Cameron that his leadership would be at risk if the Conservatives performed poorly in next year's European elections. He told Sky News's Murnaghan programme: "I think next May's Euro elections might put pressure on him to go harder because there is a lot of speculation in and around Downing Street, so I am led to believe, that Ukip might come first.

"Now if that happens next May there'll be 12 months before the election and some of our colleagues in marginal seats might get a bit windy. I don't think UKIP are going to win seats but they could split the Conservative vote if they are strong and let Labour through in those marginal seats."

Over at the Telegraph, Benedict Brogan suggests that the threat of a putsch is real, reporting that the Conservative whips believe "there is a hard core of about 30 irreconcilables who will do anything to bring down Dave". 

So how would Ruffley and his colleagues go about the putative regicide? Under current Conservative rules, a vote of no confidence is triggered when at least 15 per cent of Tory MPs ("in receipt of the Conservative whip") write to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee (currently Graham Brady) requesting one. This can be done either collectively or separately and the names of the signatories are not disclosed. With 305 sitting Conservative MPs, 46 signatures would be required for a vote to be held. Once this threshold has been met, the chairman in consultation with the leader then determines the date of such a vote "as soon as possible in the circumstances prevailing". 

If the leader wins the support of a simply majority in the vote, they remain leader and no further vote can be held for 12 months from the date of the ballot. If they lose the vote (again, on a simple majority basis), they must resign and may not stand in the leadership election that then follows. Unlike in 1989, when Tory backbencher Anthony Meyer stood against Margaret Thatcher, no "stalking horse" candidate is required to oust the leader. While Cameron would easily win any vote, he would be damaged if a significant minority of MPs either voted against him or abstained. In 1989, Thatcher defeated Meyer by 314 votes to 33, but once spoilt ballots and abstentions were included, it emerged that 60 MPs - 16 per cent of the parliamentary party - had failed to support her. In Meyer's words, people then "started to think the unthinkable". 

Under the current Conservative leadership election rules, adopted in 1998, if there is only one valid nomination, that person is elected. If there are two, both candidates go forward to a vote of the party membership. If there are three or more, a ballot is held within the parliamentary party to determine the two who go forward to the membership. 

In 2005, in the final act of his leadership, Michael Howard attempted to change the rules in order to give MPs, rather than party members, the final say. The move was prompted by the 2001 leadership election, which saw the popular Ken Clarke win the MPs' vote but Iain Duncan Smith trump him in the members' ballot. Unsurprisingly, after Duncan Smith's calamitous time as leader, most felt a Clarke victory would have served the party better. But Howard's proposals failed to win the two-thirds majority required, with only 58 per cent of activists endorsing them (although 71 per cent of MPs did), and the status quo prevailed.  

David Cameron on holiday in Ibiza, Spain. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.