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6 June 2022

Why Tory MPs aren’t as good at regicide as they like to think

If past no-confidence votes are anything to go by, they won’t get rid of Boris Johnson.

By William Atkinson

Received wisdom, party folklore and the original House of Cards have long combined to give the impression that Conservative MPs are masters of regicide, that the party is ruthless and profoundly disloyal when it comes to its electoral fortunes. Some parts of the party are still yet to recover from Margaret Thatcher’s defenestration thirty-odd years ago. But for those hoping that this evening’s no-confidence vote in Boris Johnson will result in his removal, I unfortunately have a warning from history: Conservative MPs are not half as good at removing their leaders as they think they are.

Since Margaret Thatcher’s fall only one Conservative leader has been successfully removed by a no-confidence vote: Iain Duncan Smith in 2003. Even in this case, Duncan Smith had the dubious honour of never having been supported by most of his MPs in a leadership election. He was elected in 2001 thanks to Conservative Party members, as Ken Clarke had won amongst MPs. His position was always uncertain.  

Compare that with other recent leaders. John Major, Michael Howard, David Cameron and Theresa May all only lost the leadership after a national vote went against them. Major also resigned the leadership in 1995 to hold a “back me or sack me” vote. Despite the Conservatives having trailed Labour in the opinion polls since 1992, Tory MPs voted to keep him by 218 votes to 89. Cabinet ministers and backbenchers alike were too scared to act, leaving only the little-known John Redwood to stand against Major, who went on to lead his party to a crushing defeat in the 1997 general election.

May was the most recent leader to have faced a confidence vote, in December 2018. The fact that it took eighteen months from the 2017 general election for Tory MPs to move against her shows why their capacity for regicide should be looked at askance. May’s attempted removal, spearheaded by Jacob Rees-Mogg, was chaotic, and Brexiteers and Remainers failed to coordinate with each other. And despite most MPs agreeing privately that May should go, they clung to nurse for fear of something worse (which sounds all too familiar when it comes to Johnson) – and she won by 200 votes to 117. Indeed, it took the Tories coming fifth in the 2019 European Elections with less than 10 per cent of the vote for MPs to threaten another confidence vote and force May’s resignation. 

Given that MPs have moved against Johnson before the two by-elections on 23 June, they have nowhere near as sizeable an electoral disaster to use against him. His allies will spend the day pointing towards his 80-seat landslide, two mayoral election victories in London and the 2016 Brexit referendum as proof of his electoral appeal. Ultimately, don’t be surprised if Johnson is still in place at 8pm today.

There is one glimmer of hope for Johnson’s opponents, however. It took two challenges to remove Thatcher as prime minister, in 1989 and 1990, and had May not resigned it would have taken two with her too. Johnson may not be out tonight, but this vote will wound the Prime Minister. Every future by-election and local election loss will only make the case for his removal stronger.

[See also: Jeremy Hunt: “Conservatives must not alienate suburban voters”]

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