Predicting whether and when the Conservative Party will trigger a confidence vote in Theresa May is a fool’s errand. We are operating from a position of total ignorance about two things: how many people have signed letters of no confidence already and how many people are signing letters today. The only person who could plausibly know is Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee.
But despite all of that, I think there has been a real and significant shift in the Conservative Party, and one that has important implications not only for the chances that May will face a confidence vote in her leadership, but also that she will lose it.
What’s clear is that many Eurosceptics – MPs who you might describe as “European Research Group-adjacent” if not wholly of the ERG themselves – have had enough. Two have gone public in the last two days, Crispin Blunt and Owen Paterson. But we’ve always known that if they wanted, the Eurosceptic-ultras could trigger a confidence vote in May. We also know that this faction of the parliamentary party isn’t big enough on its own to win a vote of no confidence in May. So this group getting more irritated with May is a secondary issue, as all they can do, ultimately, is stamp their feet.
But there’s been a shift in the middle ground of the party too. This is the biggest faction among Conservative MPs: notionally they are all Remainers in that they publicly backed a Remain vote in 2016. But they largely did so because of two reasons: firstly because in many cases they were MPs in marginal seats who owed not only their frontbench careers but their careers as MPs to David Cameron. Secondly, because while they had no affection for the European Union they thought that the disruption of leaving wasn’t worth the candle.
This group largely but not exclusively backed May in the 2016 leadership election and is well-represented on the government payroll. But now it is decisively swinging against the Prime Minister.
Why? Discontent has multiple reasons. One factor is that several MPs do not believe that May has what it takes to pass a Brexit withdrawal agreement: the ability to reach out beyond the confines of the Conservative Party.
There is also rising distrust at her secretive style of making decisions: “one reason she won,” one of this group told me, “is she looked people in marginal seats in the eye and said: ‘I won’t have an election’. And now we know what she’s like”. Her seeming willingness to risk a no-deal exit makes her intolerable to this part of the party. While it is not accurate to say that only MPs in safe seats are supporters of a no-deal exit, that flirting with no deal is a preoccupation of Conservatives with Soviet majorities is a not uncommon belief among Tories in marginal seats who do not have religion about the issue either way. Several soft pro-Europeans, hitherto supportive of the Prime Minister, described her as “part of the problem”.
The eleventh hour decision to mothball the vote has only aggravated the problem. Ministers who had gone out on television saying that the vote would not be pulled feel embarrassed, while MPs whose local parties are threatening them with deselection for backing the deal feel as if they have been sent over the top for nothing.
On top of all that, MPs who feel that the only way to get a Brexit deal is if the “decent” or “sensible” bit of the Labour party can vote for it despairs of her handling of the whole thing and her inability to “reach out” to people outside the Conservative Party.
The movement isn’t universal: Bim Afolami, the Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, told the New Statesman: “Anyone who thinks what the country needs now is a Conservative Party leadership election needs professional help. We are at risk of looking like we are concerned about our own political concerns, not the concerns of the country, in the midst of this Brexit crisis”, while one minister said it would be “self-sabotaging and self-destructive” to move against the Prime Minister now.
Nonetheless, the shift in the mood matters, for two reasons. The first is that it significantly increases the chances that a confidence vote will be triggered. The second is that it means that opposition to May’s leadership is now sufficiently well-spread within the parliamentary party that her chances of winning that vote are receding.