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.