Will there be a Tory leadership contest?

Theresa May faces a confidence vote, but will it result in a new Tory leader – and Prime Minister?

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More than two years after Theresa May said “Brexit means Brexit”, she has finally clarified what she meant: a withdrawal agreement with a transition period, and a controversial backstop plan to avoid a hard border in the island of Ireland. And a lot of MPs are unhappy, not least the Tory Brexiteers.

David Davis and Boris Johnson resigned in July, after the cabinet was asked to agree on a collective Brexit vision. When the draft withdrawal agreement was published in November, it was the turn of Esther McVey and Dominic Raab. Meanwhile, members of the ardently pro-Brexit European Research Group have been urging Tory MPs to trigger a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister

So what would it take to trigger a Tory leadership contest, and should we expect one? 

How to remove a Conservative leader

Although it is clear May has plenty of enemies, if they want to remove her they will need to follow a specific procedure. In this article from October 2017 (they’ve been trying a long time), George Eaton describes in detail how to remove a Conservative leader. At least 15 per cent of Tory MPs – 48 of them in the current set-up – must write to the 1922 Committee, a group of Conservative backbenchers, requesting a vote of confidence.

On 12 December, the 1922 Committee Chairman, Graham Brady, announced that the 48 letters are in. 

The 48 letters on their own, though, do not necessarily mean a Tory leadership election. If May wins the confidence vote, she could stay on as leader without the threat of another one for a full year. Patrick Maguire describes the high stakes behind a confidence vote here, while Stephen Bush explains why some MPs might prefer to choose to get rid of her now, rather than lose the chance later

Should we expect a Tory leadership election?

If May did lose a confidence vote, or won and felt compelled to resign anyway – as Margaret Thatcher did – then, despite her quitting what to all appearances looks like a thankless job, many Tory MPs are likely to be keen to succeed her. 

As Patrick Maguire explains here, while Brexiteers like Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are clearly ambitious and popular with Leave voters, that does not necessarily mean they will be front-runners. This is because under current party rules, Tory MPs get to decide the shortlist and would almost certainly exclude Johnson. Stephen Bush elaborates on the reasons why here

Julia Rampen is the digital night editor at the Liverpool Echo, and the former digital news editor of the New Statesman. She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.