During the last round of speculation about Theresa May’s future, in the aftermath of the general election, we explained that the modern rules governing Conservative leadership contests leaves no space for ‘stalking horses’.
Unfortunately, it seems that this lesson has not been universally taken either by the media or, slightly mystifyingly, some Conservative MPs.
To reiterate: under the old system anybody who could scrape together a proposer and a seconder could put themselves over the top.
Now you need 48 letters to Graham Brady, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, which starts a process which if successful ends in a free-for-all as MPs whittle the would-be contenders down to the final two, who face the membership.
Such an all-or-nothing system, protected by such a higher barrier to entry, is deliberately constructed to make coups difficult to mount and discourage the sort of debilitating guerrilla warfare that the stalking-horse method invited. It is brutal and leaves comparatively little scope for bluffing.
The post-conference conspirators seem, for one or the other of those reasons, to have tried to circumvent it, and come a cropper as a consequence.
Apparently it was felt that actually submitting letters to Brady and launching an open coup would be an unnecessarily brutal way to treat the Prime Minister, especially given the few months she’s had. The idea instead was to present hard proof of discontent to the whips in hope that May could be quietly pressured into stepping aside.
Upon receiving this the whips, according to one version of events, then leaked the whole thing to the media and set a very angry Parliamentary Conservative Party on the plotters.
If this is true, or close enough, it seems that Shapps et al have misjudged the role of the whips’ office in the modern Conservative Party. Much like the Cabinet, what was once an independent Party institution which stood at a remove from the leadership (as seen in the excellent play ‘This House’) is now much more an instrument of it.
So instead of acting as a neutral broker between the rebels and Downing Street, as the former seem to have expected and as his predecessors did during John Redwood’s challenge to John Major in 1995, Gavin Williamson and his troops instead coordinated a ferocious counter-attack.
Here we see how the change in the system seems to have caught people off guard. The old protections afforded to would-be challengers with only ‘stalking horse’ strength behind them are gone, and Shapps et al did not actually trigger a formal contest under the new rules.
Ergo, it could be argued, the whips were under no obligation not to act as May’s Praetorian Guard, and it was unwise for the plotters to attract their attention.
The battles over the Tory leadership between Margaret Thatcher’s ousting and John Major’s defeat in the 1997 election have been seared deeply into the folk memory of both Tory MPs and the media.
But the forms and rhythms of those struggles do not fit the reality of today’s rules. Anybody seeking to topple May (or hoping to write accurately about such an attempt) should adapt their thinking accordingly.