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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. 

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Under Brady’s predecessor, Michael Spicer, the letters required annual renewal but they now remain on file unless withdrawn.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 midway through the 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, most Tory MPs believe that May's survival represents the former. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”