How will the Conservative vote of confidence in Theresa May work?

1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady has briefed journalists on what happens now.

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Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, has just given a wide-ranging briefing to journalists in Westminster ahead of this evening’s vote of confidence in Theresa May.

Tonight’s vote marks the first time that a serving prime minister has faced a challenge under the current rules (the only previous occasion saw Iain Duncan Smith defeated in 2003). Under questioning from the lobby, Brady revealed how the Conservative Party got here – and where it goes now. Here is what we learned.

When will the vote take place?

The Prime Minister will address Conservative MPs at 5pm this evening, in parliament’s Committee Room 14 – the usual venue for meetings of the 1922 Committee. A secret ballot will then open at 6pm. It will close at 8pm, with the votes taken to an adjacent committee room to be counted by Brady and his colleagues on the ‘22’s executive, Cheryl Gillan and Charles Walker. Asked by the BBC’s Nick Watt when the process would conclude, Brady joked: “Just after Newsnight goes off air.” A result is actually expected by 9pm.

When was the threshold of 48 letters reached?

Brady informed May that he had received at least 48 letters expressing no confidence in her leadership – equal to 15 per cent of her parliamentary party – at around 9:30pm last night. “During the course of yesterday it was clear that the threshold had been passed,” Brady said. He hinted, however, that some MPs had withdrawn their letters at the eleventh hour. “This is a fluid process, and that makes it slightly more complex,” he said. “It isn’t just a thermometer going up and up and up outside a local hospital...there was an element of traffic in both directions.” He stressed that he had “no reason to be anything but confident” that all the letters in his possession were valid.

Why is the timeframe so short?

The rules of the process, Brady said, dictate that a vote must take place “as quickly as possible” should one be triggered. He said that May desired “to resolve things properly”, hence the quick turnaround: “Having decided we should move swiftly, we reached the judgement it was sensible to announce before markets open.”

That the meaningful vote on the Brexit deal had been scheduled for last night also means that most Conservative MPs will be in Westminster. “It might have been different had the House been in recess or approaching summer,” he said. Those Tory MPs who are away from parliament have until 4pm to nominate a proxy.

Asked what he would say to critics who believe the timing boosts May’s chances of survival, Brady pointed again to the rules that dictate it should be held as soon as possible and laughed off suggestions that he was a Downing Street patsy. “It would have been more difficult had she asked for a delay,” he said.

Who can vote?

All 315 MPs who are currently in receipt of the Conservative whip are able to vote, including Brady and the Prime Minister. A simple majority of 50 per cent plus one – 158 – is required to win.

That threshold will increase if the two Tory MPs who are currently suspended from the whip – Andrew Griffiths and Charlie Elphicke – have it reinstated before the ballot, which Brady confirmed was possible. The verdict in the electoral fraud trial of Craig Mackinlay, the MP for South Thanet, is expected today and could also change the arithmetic.

What happens if the Prime Minister loses?

May will immediately resign as Conservative leader – but not as Prime Minister – if she loses tonight’s vote. A leadership contest in which she will be barred from standing will automatically follow. In that event, the 1922 Committee’s executive will meet tomorrow to organise a contest, which Brady assumes will be dealt with “expeditiously”.

The first rounds of the contest, which see MPs whittle the field down to two candidates, would take place next week. Brady said it would be “infinitely preferable” if the process could be concluded while the House was still sitting – it breaks for recess on Thursday 20 December.

He said it would be “possible but not desirable” for consecutive rounds of voting to be held on the same day, and suggested he would prefer them to take place on consecutive days to allow what is expected to be a broad field to narrow itself down. “It doesn’t always help people to pull out of a contest if you give them no time to think,” he said.

The top two candidates will go forward to a postal ballot of all Tory members of at least three months’ standing. Brady would not be drawn on how long such a process would take and whether it could be truncated, stressing the decision was up to the Conservative Party board.

What happens if the Prime Minister wins?

May will win a year’s immunity from further challenge.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.