ConservativeHome has done very nicely out of Tory leadership confidence ballot stories over the years. But only one of them has come to anything – last December’s challenge to Theresa May. Indeed, there have only been two such challenges in over 15 years: to this Party leader (unsuccessfully) and to Iain Duncan Smith (successfully). David Cameron was relentlessly threatened by confidence votes. None of them came to pass. The image of panicked Conservative MPs ceaselessly knifing their leaders is overworked. These ballots are more honoured in the breach than in the observance.
Members of the Executive of the 1922 Committee, who meet today, should look at the past in that light. They will consider whether or not to change the rules under which leadership challenges can be made with the intent of making them easier to trigger. This site is told that there are three main options: to make such a revision; not to make it, or to ask the Parliamentary Party as a whole whether or not it should be made.
The first point to make is that any such change must be “built to last”, as Cameron himself used to put it. It is all very well crafting a reform intended to deal with one set of circumstances now – in this case, Theresa May’s leadership – only then find that it is inappropriate for others later. An Australia-style leadership spill culture is best avoided. It recently gave that country five changes of Prime Minister in five years. We don’t want that here (or shouldn’t).
The key test is the threshold for any challenge. At present, the Party leader can be challenged if 15 per cent of Tory MPs write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee to express no confidence in her (or him). If a ballot ensues and the leader wins, another cannot take place for a year. For the rules to be changed to allow more ballots to take place within that period with the same threshold would risk instability. But to keep them as they are leans to the other extreme – inflexibility. The rules should allow for extraordinary circumstances. And how else could the present ones be described?
It is claimed that the committee could reform them to allow more frequent challenges with a higher threshold – say, 30 per cent rather than 15 per cent. The bar might be set a bit higher: at 40 per cent, for example. Frankly, if two out of five Conservative MPs have lost confidence in their leader, then there should certainly be a ballot, and the person in question should consider their position in any event. And so the committee should conclude today.
The odds are against it doing so, for two main reasons. First, a leadership election soon might well return a non-Cabinet member who campaigned for Leave in 2016, such as the two men who lead ConservativeHome’s Next Tory leader survey – Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab. That would not suit the significant slice of the committee that voted Remain, or who want a Soft Brexit, or who are opposed to both mens’ candidacies.
Second, mañana. There is always a temptation to let matters drift. Let’s return to the matter after the local elections, some committee members may argue. Or after the European elections – if, some may add, these happen at all. Perhaps the Prime Minister will finally get her deal through the Commons, and those elections will consequently be cancelled. Maybe Jeremy Corbyn will come to her aid. Or Labour MPs do so anyway. Or the Spartans beat their swords into ploughshares. Perhaps Bill Cash will walk through the lobbies arm in arm with the Prime Minister, or Michel Barnier suddenly concede the Malthouse Compromise, or…
But our readers will see how unlikely any of this is. And the Conservative Party is, as the Commons returns today, in a very bad place – the worst in modern times. The postponement of Brexit after it had been promised on March 29th on over a hundred occasion; the talks with Jeremy Corbyn and, perhaps above all, the return of Nigel Farage are pulverising the Party’s poll ratings. Five in a row have shown it scoring under 30 per cent.
In very crude terms, the referendum result and Corbyn’s rise pushed the Tory vote share up to its highest since the halcyon days of Margaret Thatcher. Theresa May Mark One proclaimed that “if you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”, and scooped up almost the entirety of the old UKIP vote. Then came the election of 2017, and Theresa May Mark Two. The pledge to leave on March 29 was not honoured, and that UKIP support, having unwound, has started to wind back, largely to the Brexit Party.
According to our survey, three in five Party members will vote for it, if elections are held on May 22. That finding is buttressed by a poll which discovered that two in five Conservative councillors will do so. More than 70 Association Chairmen are apparently planning a no confidence manoeuvre of their own. Such a vote by an emergency National Convention would have no formal status, but it would be an unprecedented event. (And, talking of Party reform, Association activists ought surely to have such formal recourse under the terms of the Party’s constitution, if an appropriately high threshold can be put in place.)
Those ’22 executive members will know today from their own experience on the doorsteps, over the Easter weekend, that the Tory vote is in a dreadful place. Perhaps the local elections will be less damaging than expected; maybe a disastrous European election showing wouldn’t be the end of the world: after all, it hasn’t been in the past. But there was no Brexit then – no referendum pledge undelivered – and no Brexit Party. The greatest danger of all is the collapse of the activist base. How can elections be won without one?
Commons recesses can refresh the senses and relax the mind. There is a danger that, confronted by these apocalytic possibilites on their return to Westminster, Tory MPs will simply shut their eyes, flex their index fingers, and stick these in their ears. Graham Brady and company may hope that the mere threat of a rule change, plus that of an extraordinary National Convention, will persuade the Prime Minister to quit as Party leader, allowing a leadership election to provide a replacement after European elections.
The best argument against changing the rules is that changing the leader doesn’t change the numbers. A new Prime Minister would face the same old Commons. That truth leads thought to where most Tory MPs would rather not take it. The likely choice they now face is between a new leader who calls an election to seek a majority for a refreshed Brexit policy…or the drift of the House towards a second referendum, the revocation of Brexit, and a Conservative vote marooned at under 30 per cent. The first option carries the risk of handing office to Corbyn. The second, that of losing it for a generation.