Why are Tory rebels pushing for a confidence vote they might not win?

For the ERG leadership, the real victory would be demonstrating conclusively that May’s Withdrawal Agreement did not have a chance of passing parliament. 

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What will happen if Conservative MPs manage to trigger a vote of no confidence in Theresa May? As the letters to 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady stack up, that is the question members of the European Research Group are considering this evening.

Until the contents of the prime minister’s draft Brexit deal were revealed yesterday, the received wisdom and public preference of senior members of the ERG was that they had the numbers to force a change in policy, not personnel, and should work to that end. By the time Cabinet met yesterday, that logic had given way to resignation that it was no longer possible to prevail upon May to change course and that a confidence vote was the only way to go.

Government sources are struck by their change in tune – and by the very public way in which Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker announced it earlier. It was only a month ago that Baker, who is essentially the ERG’s chief whip, said the numbers to force a change in leader simply did not exist. The reasonable suspicion on the part of those still loyal to the prime minister is that he would not have licensed the attack were he not sure that the rebels could not at least hit the 48 needed to trigger a confidence vote.

Will they? The first thing to note is that the ERG is not as coherent a group as it is often portrayed as, and not all of its members believe that a vote of no confidence is necessarily the right gambit. Members of its WhatsApp group note that some of its veterans are urging caution – Bernard Jenkin, for instance, has told colleagues to be “lucid and calm”, while Edward Leigh has refused to submit a letter and says May’s deal should be defeated in parliament.

One cool-headed member, however, says proponents of that strand of opinion are very much in the minority. They reckon conciliatory voices are outnumbered “ten to one” by those congratulating those who have quit government posts and calling for the submission of letters to Brady. It remains to be seen whether that means the rebels will actually end up hitting the threshold. But what today has made clear is that we are much closer to it happening than at any point in recent months. If it doesn’t, then May’s position will look much stronger, even if her majority remains non-existent and the chances of no deal remain non-trivial and rising.

Separate to all of that is the more pressing question of whether May would win a confidence vote. A simple majority is all that would be needed for her to do so, and most Tory MPs still think she could clear that bar, even if, as some loyalists predict, a not insignificant number of the payroll votes against the prime minister along with the rebels.  Asked whether the numbers exist to win the confidence vote, a source close to Baker says: “I cannot be sure.”

For the ERG leadership, though, the real victory would be demonstrating conclusively that May’s Withdrawal Agreement did not have a chance of passing parliament. Arguably, hitting 48 would do that, as there is no way that 58 Labour MPs will vote for May’s deal and cancel out those votes and the 10 of the DUP.

The prime minister has insisted that she will fight on should she win the ensuing ballot. But one ally of David Davis says its result, even if it fell short of 50 per cent, would serve to illustrate the number of MPs willing to go “on strike” should she do so. Many are convinced that her position would be just as untenable, especially if the number of votes against her hit treble figures (the gamble, of course, is that May would decline the opportunity to take advantage of her year’s immunity by returning to Brussels after a first defeat and seeking a deal that Labour could vote for). They could well be right. But first, they will need to trigger a vote.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.