Conservative MPs trigger confidence vote in Theresa May’s leadership

A ballot will be held tonight on whether the Prime Minister remains party leader after 48 letters demanding a vote were submitted. 

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Conservative MPs have triggered a confidence vote in Theresa May’s leadership of the party, the first step towards removing her and staging a full leadership contest. Under the rules of the Tory party constitution, a vote is held when 15 per cent or more of MPs (48) demand one in writing to the chair of the 1922 committee (currently Graham Brady MP), the partys backbench organisation.

Brady has now confirmed that the magic number has been reached, telling the press in a statement: “The threshold of 15 per cent of the parliamentary party seeking a vote of confidence in the leader of the Conservative party has been exceeded.” He said he had told the Prime Minister on Tuesday evening. In an interview with the BBC Today programme, he would not be drawn on the PM’s reaction, but said: “She was very keen that this matter should be resolved as rapidly as reasonably possible.” He also stressed that the confidence vote affected the leadership of the Tory party rather than the country, adding: “The Prime Minister remains the Prime Minister until there is a successor.”

That hurdle having been met, May will now a face a private ballot of all 315 Conservative MPs tonight between 6pm and 8pm in committee room 14 of the House of Commons. Should more than half of all votes cast oppose her leadership, a new contest, in which she is ineligible to stand, will be held. Should she win, however, Tory MPs will be prohibited from formally challenging her leadership for 12 months. 

Speaking to the press on Wednesday morning, May said: “I will contest that vote with everything I've got.” She warned that a new leader would not have time to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and get it through parliament before the deadline for leaving the EU. The first act of a new leader, she added, would be “delaying or stopping Brexit”.

The confidence vote comes before May is due to meet European leaders, having delayed the meaningful vote on the Brexit withdrawal agreement that was scheduled for Tuesday. On the Today programme, Justice Secretary David Gauke called the vote “an act of self indulgence” so close to the Brexit deadline. Similar messages of public support were shared by several Tory government ministers tipped to be future leadership candidates, including Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Amber Rudd and Jeremy Hunt. The ballot itself is secret.

If May does lose, the Tory party will then be conducting a leadership contest at the same time that the government must come up with a new Brexit plan, if the UK is to avoid crashing out of the EU on 29 March 2019 without a deal. The EU has repeatedly said it will not renegotiate the Brexit withdrawal deal. 

For both sides, it is a high-stakes gamble: if May is forced out, no Conservative faction can be certain that it will emerge on top. And if May survives, her critics will have just gifted her the ability to continue to lead the UK through the Brexit negotiations. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.