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Boris Johnson is wrong to think he is safe for a year

Tory rebels have a majority on the executive of the 1922 Committee, meaning the PM could face a second no-confidence vote at any time.

By Harry Lambert

After his narrow survival in Monday night’s vote of no confidence, Boris Johnson believes he is safe from another possible vote against him for a year. That confidence, which I understand Johnson holds, is misguided. As I reported on Monday night, sources on the executive of the 1922 Committee (the body which governs confidence votes in Tory leaders) tell me Johnson could soon face another vote. 

That vote is more likely to happen after the summer recess than before it, but once a majority of Tory MPs are felt to want Johnson out – if that moment comes – he will face another vote. 

How so? Under the modern conventions of the 1922, a Tory leader is, as Johnson believes, safe for a year having survived a vote. But in reality, the executive of the 1922 can vote to hold another vote of no confidence whenever they like. They did so in May 2019, only a few months after Theresa May survived a no-confidence vote in December 2018. They took the sealed results of that vote to Downing Street and told May they would open the envelope containing them if she did not announce her resignation. She chose to do so.

If pressure builds against Johnson, he is likely to face a similar situation. “Nature,” as one rebel puts it to me, “finds a way. 180 Tory MPs can write to the Times.” (Writing to the Times would have no constitutional impact on Johnson, but it would signal the need for another vote, although so public a step is unlikely to be necessary.)

The decision on holding another vote will fall to the executive of the 1922, an 18-seat body on which 17 seats are currently filled, with one vacant. The current membership of the body has not been well-reported: the existing Wikipedia entry, circulated in various pieces online, only lists 13 “current” members and two of them are no longer on the executive; six other MPs who are on the committee are not listed. 

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The 17 MPs who actually make up the current executive (which includes six officers and 11 other members) are worth scrutinising because they have the power to allow another no-confidence vote at any point. Control of the committee could prove critical in the coming months. 

On the surface, it appears that Johnson may have a majority of supporters on the executive: six of its members – Jason McCartney, Karl McCartney, Sheryll Murray, Martin Vickers, David Morris, Rob Halfon – have publicly said that they backed him on Monday. Only five members are publicly known to have opposed Johnson – Will Wragg, Alicia Kearns, Mark Pawsey, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown and John Stevenson. 

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There are six other members of the committee: Graham Brady (the chair), Nus Ghani, Gary Sambrook, Bob Blackman, Bernard Jenkin, and Tom Randall. One of them is known to have voted for Johnson, giving him seven supporters out of 17. But I understand that four of the other five did not, meaning that nine of the 17 oppose the Prime Minister (one MP’s vote is not well known because of potential conflicts of interest).

The rebels, in other words, have a majority on the current 1922 executive. And that body can, in theory, vote to allow another vote of no confidence at any time. If Johnson is convinced he cannot now face another no-confidence vote for a year, he is operating under a false comfort.

However, the committee is – because of the new parliamentary session that began last month – due to be re-elected in the coming months. There is nothing to stop the current executive from making a rule change prior to their ranks being refreshed, but if they do not make a change, the elections for the next iteration of the executive will, as one rebel puts it, become “a de facto no-confidence vote” – and one in which backbenchers alone can participate. (My estimate of Monday’s vote suggests that a majority of backbenchers oppose Johnson.)

Those 1922 elections are not due until the autumn, but when they happen, rebels plan to put forward a slate of candidates who back changing the rules to allow a second vote, in the event that proves necessary. If Johnson has lost the backbenches, as he appears to have done, government whips will struggle to prevent the election of a slate of rebels to the 1922 executive.

All of this adds detail to what we reported on Monday afternoon, prior to the vote: that Johnson will face another vote of no confidence when the majority of his party want one. He does not have a year’s grace. He may survive the summer, but his prospects for surviving the year were not strengthened by winning on Monday night. His MPs have been forced to weigh him in the balance, and two-fifths of them resolved that they want him gone. Nothing is assured, but that total seems more likely to rise than fall, and if it does, a second vote of no confidence this year is not only possible but probable.

[See also: Who will replace Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader? – State of the Nation]

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