Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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Under Brady’s predecessor, Michael Spicer, the letters required annual renewal but they now remain on file unless withdrawn.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.

PHOTO: GETTY
Show Hide image

Four key thinkers more deserving of a revival than “Trump’s philosopher” Ayn Rand

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely.

A recent story in theTimes carried the headline, “Trump’s philosopher is heading for your local pub”. The philosopher in question was Ayn Rand, whose works The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) have been a profound influence on the American right since they were published, and are apparently enjoying a resurgence.

The story went on: the previous week, “about 15 people packed into a room above the Plumbers Arms in Victoria, central London” to discuss Rand. You read that right: 15! Three more than a dozen! Their cups runneth over indeed. We later discovered that Britain’s first Ayn Rand Centre is being set up. Moreover, new groups dedicated to Rand have popped up in Reading and Milton Keynes.

Everything about this story was designed to make me angry. For one thing, Rand was above all a novelist, not a philosopher. For another, it’s generous to suggest that the star of America’s Celebrity Apprentice, who is also the current occupant of the White House, is deeply familiar with her overall body of work. He said he enjoyed The Fountainhead; that’s some way short of her being a favourite philosopher.

But the thing that really riles me is this fashion for stories about intellectual fashions. Last year, apparently, there was an upsurge of interest in, and sales of, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. During the financial crisis, displaying knowledge of Hyman Minsky’s oeuvre became the columnist’s trope du jour – just as, in the recession that followed, flaunting one’s knowledge of John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory was a mark of cool and learning.

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely. So here, apropos of nothing in particular, are four other key thinkers that are being unfairly neglected.

1. Polonius The true hero of Elsinore, who manages to distil in one speech more wisdom than the self-indulgent prince manages over five acts. Where Hamlet’s meandering vanities take him hither and thither to no great end, Polonius speaks the language of uncommon common sense to which this column aspires. And how prescient is he? His “neither a borrower nor a lender be” anticipated the post-monetary policy era four centuries before Mark Carney took the reins in Threadneedle Street. And his advice to “Give every man thine ear but few thy voice” is the perfect coping mechanism for social media. 

2. Judith Kerr If you have young children, chances are you are more than familiar with Kerr’s seminal work, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In it, Sophie is having tea with her mother in the kitchen when a big, furry, stripy tiger knocks on the door. It joins them and promptly eats and drinks everything in the house, forcing the family to go out for a special dinner when Sophie’s father comes home from work. Naturally, I don’t approve of the stereotypical gender roles in this plot; but the message of instinctive generosity and openness to unfamiliar outsiders, with unforeseen benefits for family life, undoubtedly carries lessons for our age of mass migration and rapid demographic upheaval.

3. Meryl Streep Less neglected than my other candidates for your attention, I’ll grant; but I really think Meryl Streep’s assertion, when asked in 2015 by Time Out if she was a feminist, is crucial. She said: “I’m a humanist.” In doing this she proclaimed the connection between feminism and universal ideals, placed feminism within a broader philosophical tradition, and revived interest in humanism at a time when religiosity is again on the march. Given the current conniptions over gender in our public domain, this was an important contribution, don’t you think?

4. Humphrey Appleby Have you noticed that, amid the toxic warfare over Brexit, the once unimpeachable integrity of Britain’s civil servants is now being traduced? Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised them only the other week. I recommend he revisit Yes, Minister, in which the peerless Nigel Hawthorne played the ultimate British bureaucrat. His dictum that “a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist” is both plausible and the perfect coolant for our
overheated democracy.

Back to the Ayn Rand philosophy club: I don’t believe I’ve tried the Plumbers Arms in Victoria. But I’ll make an exception if some New Statesman reader is prepared to start the first UK society dedicated to the propagation of these thinkers’ ideas. Anyone fancy a pint? 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist