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How does a no-confidence vote actually work?

The support of 54 Tory MPs is needed to trigger a confidence vote on Boris Johnson’s leadership.

By George Eaton

Conservative MPs have triggered a confidence vote in Boris Johnson’s leadership, following a scandal-strewn period made worse by an ongoing cost of living crisis.

Take a look at our explainer to see how a no-confidence vote works, and the possible outcomes for Johnson.

How is a no-confidence vote triggered?

Under Conservative Party rules MPs can write to Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, requesting a confidence vote in the party leader. Only Brady knows for certain how many letters there are. The epistolary assassins are guaranteed anonymity – unless they choose to make their intentions public. 

If at least 15 per cent of Tory MPs (54 at present) write to Brady, a vote is triggered. Under Michael Spicer, Brady’s predecessor, the letters required annual renewal, but they now remain on file unless withdrawn. The letters must be submitted by hand rather than by email.

How does a no-confidence vote work? 

Once a confidence vote is triggered, a secret ballot of all Conservative MPs is held, normally over a single day. If the party leader wins the vote (by securing more than 50 per cent) they remain in office and are rewarded with a year’s immunity. If they lose, they are forced to resign and are barred from standing in the leadership election that follows. 

In December 2018, Theresa May won a confidence vote by 200 to 117 but was forced to resign seven months later after a party revolt triggered by the Tories’ disastrous performance in the European elections. 

The last Tory leader to be removed through a confidence vote was Iain Duncan Smith, who was ousted in October 2003 after losing the ballot by 90 votes to 75. 

What is the 1922 Committee? 

The 1922 Committee is the body that represents Tory backbenchers and it meets weekly in parliament’s Committee Room 14. The Prime Minister is expected to appear at least quarterly and at significant political junctures.

Throughout its history, the ‘22 has been synonymous with orderly dissent. Its name derives from the 19 October 1922 Carlton Club meeting at which Conservative rebels, led by Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin, successfully demanded the party’s withdrawal from the Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George’s coalition government. After the subsequent general election, the 1922 Committee began in 1923 as a private dining club for new MPs. By 1926, all backbench Tory MPs were permitted to become members.

In 2010, David Cameron tried to reform the committee by allowing government ministers to elect its executive. (“Essentially, what Cameron wanted to do was nationalise the committee,” Brady said.) A large rebellion prompted him to retreat. 

Is it possible to stand a “stalking horse” candidate against the leader?

Until 1998, Tory MPs were able to launch maverick leadership challenges against an incumbent (as Anthony Meyer did against Margaret Thatcher in 1989). A leadership contest is now only triggered by a vote of no confidence or the leader’s resignation.

How does a leadership contest work?

In the event that enough Tory MPs do vote against Johnson, a leadership contest will be held to decide the next party leader and prime minister.

The rules are set by the 1922 Committee in consultation with the Conservative Party board, including the length of the contest and the number of nominations candidates must receive from MPs to qualify. 

If more than two candidates qualify, a series of ballots are held among MPs to determine which two will go forward to face the party membership (who have the final say).

Will Boris Johnson be removed?

Johnson’s approval rating has fallen to a record low in recent months, and the Conservatives are up to 11 percentage points behind Labour in the polls. These continuing trends may convince the Tory party that Johnson is no longer worthy of their support. Having ousted two prime ministers in recent history – Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May – and won the subsequent elections, it will not be shy of removing Johnson before voters have the chance. 

Who could succeed him?

Before he was given a police fine for breaking lockdown rules, Rishi Sunak was the most popular politician in the UK. Top candidates now include the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, who is the most popular cabinet minister among Tory party members, and the former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has urged Tory MPs to vote against Johnson in today’s motion. Other potential candidates include the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, and the backbencher Steve Baker, the former chairman of the European Research Group. 

[See also: The Conservatives are doomed whether or not Boris Johnson survives ]

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