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  1. The Explainer
13 December 2021updated 19 Jan 2022 10:49am

How could Conservative MPs remove Boris Johnson as leader?

The support of 54 Tory MPs is needed to trigger a confidence vote on Boris Johnson’s leadership.

By George Eaton

Conservative MPs are increasingly unhappy with Boris Johnson’s scandal-strewn premiership, falling Tory poll ratings and planned Covid restrictions. Is there anything they can do?

Yes, under Conservative Party rules MPs can write to Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, requesting a confidence vote in the party leader. Only Brady knows for certain how many letters there are. The epistolary assassins are guaranteed anonymity – unless they choose to make their intentions public. 

If at least 15 per cent of Tory MPs (54 at present) write to Brady, a vote is triggered. Under Michael Spicer, Brady’s predecessor, the letters required annual renewal, but they now remain on file unless withdrawn. The letters must be submitted by hand rather than by email.

What is the 1922 Committee? 

The 1922 Committee is the body that represents Tory backbenchers and it meets weekly in parliament’s Committee Room 14. The Prime Minister is expected to appear at least quarterly and at significant political junctures.

Throughout its history, the ‘22 has been synonymous with orderly dissent. Its name derives from the 19 October 1922 Carlton Club meeting at which Conservative rebels, led by Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin, successfully demanded the party’s withdrawal from Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George’s coalition government. After the subsequent general election, the 1922 Committee began in 1923 as a private dining club for new MPs. By 1926, all back-bench Tory MPs were permitted to become members.

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In 2010, David Cameron tried to reform the committee by allowing government ministers to elect its executive. (“Essentially, what Cameron wanted to do was nationalise the committee,” Brady said.) But a large rebellion prompted him to retreat. 

How does a confidence vote work? 

The vote is a secret ballot of all Conservative MPs and is normally held over a single day. If the party leader wins the vote (by securing more than 50 per cent) they remain in office and are rewarded with a year’s immunity. If they lose, they are forced to resign and are barred from standing in the leadership election that follows. 

In December 2018, Theresa May won a confidence vote by 200 to 117 but was forced to resign seven months later after a party revolt triggered by the Tories’ disastrous performance in the European elections. 

The last Tory leader to be removed through a confidence vote was Iain Duncan Smith, who was ousted in October 2003 after losing the ballot by 90 votes to 75. 

Is it possible to stand a “stalking horse” candidate against the leader?

No. Contrary to what some newspapers claim, the rules no longer permit “stalking horse” candidates. Until 1998, Tory MPs were able to launch maverick leadership challenges against an incumbent (as Anthony Meyer did against Margaret Thatcher in 1989). But a leadership contest is now only triggered by a vote of no confidence or the leader’s resignation. 

How does a leadership contest work?

The rules are set by the 1922 Committee in consultation with the Conservative Party board, including the length of the contest and the number of nominations candidates must receive from MPs in order to qualify. 

If more than two candidates qualify, a series of ballots are held among MPs to determine which two will go forward to face the party membership (who have the final say). 

Will Boris Johnson be removed?

Johnson’s approval rating has fallen to a record low and the Conservatives are up to 9 percentage points behind Labour in the polls. The Tory party, which has long had a taste for regicide, is unlikely to continue to back Johnson if these trends persist. Having ousted two prime ministers in recent history – Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May – and won the subsequent elections, it will not be shy of removing Johnson before voters have the chance. 

Who could succeed him?

The Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who remains the most popular politician in the UK, and the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, who is the most popular cabinet minister among Tory party members, are the front-runners to succeed Johnson. Other potential candidates include the Home Secretary Priti Patel and backbencher Steve Baker, the former chair of the European Research Group, who has revived the Thatcherite group Conservative Way Forward. 

[see also: Boris Johnson has lost the credibility to lead Britain through another Covid wave]

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