How to remove a Conservative leader

A “stalking horse” candidate is no longer possible. MPs must use a no confidence vote or a visit from “the grey suits” to force a leader out. 

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The Conservative Party, a former David Cameron aide recently told me, “is not a sentimental creature. When the Tories regard a leader as irrevocably damaged, they rarely hesitate to act. Margaret Thatcher and Iain Duncan Smith were both finished off by their party before the electorate had the chance. 

The Conservative leadership rules make it far easier to remove a leader than their Labour equivalent. To trigger a vote of confidence, at least 15 per cent of Tory MPs (48 at present) must write to the 1922 Committee chair Graham Brady (whom I interviewed last year) requesting one. Only Brady knows for certain how many there are. The epistolary assassins are guaranteed anonymity – unless they choose to make their intentions public.

Under Brady’s predecessor, Michael Spicer, the letters required annual renewal but they now remain on file unless withdrawn. Should the number reach 48, the 1922 chairman will consult with May and determine the date of a confidence vote as soon as possible in the circumstances prevailing.

If the Conservative leader wins a majority in the subsequent ballot she remains in office and is rewarded with a year’s immunity. If she loses, she is obliged to resign (unlike a Labour leader) and barred from standing in the leadership election that follows.

The last Tory leader to be removed through these means was Duncan Smith. On 27 October 2003, 18 days after the Tory leader's dismal conference speech, Spicer received the 25 letters required to trigger a ballot (which Duncan Smith subsequently lost by 90 votes to 75).

Though some frequently suggest otherwise, it is no longer possible for MPs to stand as a "stalking horse" (as Tory wet Anthony Meyer did against Thatcher). Until 1998, MPs only required a proposer and a seconder to initiate a leadership contest. But under the rule changes introduced by William Hague, MPs must now wait until a leader loses a confidence vote or resigns before standing. They must then attract nominations from at least 15 per cent of MPs to enter the contest. Candidates are eliminated in successive MP ballots until only two remain to face the membership. 

In November 1990, after winning the first round of the Tory leadership contest against Michael Heseltine by 204 to 152 votes, Thatcher was persuaded by a cabinet delegation to resign rather than "fight on and fight to win" (the prime minister fell four votes short of the total she needed to prevent a second round). 

As Theresa May's opponents remain short of the 48 names they require to trigger a confidence vote, they aim to persuade the PM to depart through informal means (such as a visit from "the grey suits"). But as long as she retains the support of most of the cabinet, May will be confident of survival. 

There is no agreed successor and some Tory Remainers fear the election of a "harder Brexiteer" (the Conservative grassroots will likely favour the most Eurosceptic candidate in the run-off).

The government is still in the midst of Brexit negotiations and can ill afford to lose yet more time. EU trade talks would be further delayed and Brussels would be well-placed to extract the maximum concessions from Britain.

Finally, having lost their majority earlier this year, the Conservatives are loath to do anything that could prompt a second general election. Labour would begin as favourites and Tory MPs sincerely fear the consequences of a Corbyn victory. 

Faced with a choice between bad and worse, May will hope that most Tory MPs continue to believe that her survival represents the former.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.