8am update: The vote is on. The ballot will take place this evening. Downing Street’s clear aim is to stampede Conservative MPs into voting to endorse May’s leadership before her opponents have time to push their case.
Graham Brady and the 1922 Executive want the same timing, though perhaps for a different reason: they will want the whole divisive business over as soon as possible. None the less, many Brexiteer MPs will be unhappy at their decision.
Cabinet members and other senior Tories are launching a shock and awe Twitter barrage intended to throw May’s critics on the defensive – see here and here, for example. Cabinet takes place this morning, and we look forward to PMQs later.
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Godot is within sight, the boy is crying “wolf” at the top of his voice – and Wesminster is assuming that a ballot of confidence in Theresa May’s leadership will be declared today. Graham Brady has reportedly received at least 48 letters demanding one.
Sir Graham being Sir Graham, he is keeping mum, exactly as he should, and it is still possible that the reports are wrong. This being so, we will simply report that, if they aren’t, the confidence ballot is likely to take place later this week or early next. If the Prime Minister isn’t successful in it, there is time for the Parliamentary stage of a leadership election to take place next week – indeed, more than enough, since the Commons doesn’t rise until next Thursday, December 20. The membership stage would take place after Christmas.
We write about May being successful (or not successful) rather than winning (or losing) because of an important point. It is being claimed that “158 is the magic number” – since 157.7 is what one is left with if one divides the 315 MPs in receipt of the Conservative whip in half.
But imagine for a moment that 159 MPs express confidence in her leadership, if a ballot takes place, and 156 do not. Could she then carry on as Party leader? We don’t think so. The ballot would not have found sufficient consensus for her leadership. We cite a precedent. 204 votes were cast for Margaret Thatcher during the 1990 Conservative leadership contest, and 168 were not – 152 Tory MPs opted for Michael Heseltine and 16 abstained. She won a clear majority of those voting. But she was forced out none the less.
In reply, you may quote the 1995 leadership contest, in which over a third of Conservative MPs didn’t back John Major – a substantial proportion. But he stayed on. We would counter-object that there is a difference between a third and, say, just under half.
At which point, others might join the conversation, pointing out that the rules of Tory leadership contests have changed since 1995, let alone 1990. Which reinforces our point: deciding what does and doesn’t count as success in a Conservative leadership contest is an art, not a science. As much depends on expectation – not to mention who spins loudest and longest – as figures. Personality, mood, psyops and that glorious Burkean word, circumstances: all play their part in deciding the drama. There is no magic number at all.
Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and other Cabinet members with leadership aspirations will tremble at the possibility of the Prime Minister winning any ballot, but not winning well. That would set up a conflict between loyalty and ambition from which they might not emerge unscathed.