The Conservative Party is in a peculiar position when it comes to its leadership. Just about everybody agrees Theresa May ought to resign.
And yet she is still there. The Prime Minister’s internal opponents misfired with the vote of no confidence in December, then refused to be tempted into voting for her deal by the carrot of her resignation. So we all find ourselves subject to the stick which is her continued leadership.
Under the current rules, there is no formal way for the Party leader to be ousted until 12 months have passed since the previous No Confidence ballot. But, with dire polls, deep activist discontent, a new threat in the form of the Brexit Party, and the prospect of a tough time in local and European elections very soon, few are very keen to wait so long.
Informal measures – a series of resignations, publicly breaching her most high profile promises, the open breakdown of discipline – have markedly failed to persuade May that her time is up. In the meantime, therefore, eyes have turned to the Conservative Party’s rulebook in a search for a solution.
I’m aware of four different ideas doing the rounds about what could be done.
A 1922 committee ‘indicative vote’ of no confidence
Given the innovation of indicative voting by Remainers in the Commons, some Brexiteers within the Parliamentary Conservative Party have pondered applying the same process internally. If they aren’t allowed a binding no confidence vote until December, they reason, then they could still have a non-binding vote to make the message clear. Some are reportedly already submitting letters to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee in the hope that he will communicate the scale of their dissent. The idea that this could translate into an early ‘indicative’ ballot founders not only on the quite important fact that Graham Brady has ruled it out, but also on the fact that the Prime Minister shows no sign of accepting mere advice from her critics, or even from some of her allies.
A petition of members to change the constitution
Buried within the Conservative Party’s constitution is Schedule 9, regulating the power to initiate amendments to the constitution. Such amendments can be kickstarted by the ’22 or the Party Board (both divided on the topic) or by the National Conservative Convention (which is not due to meet for months) or by a mass petition from Party members. Yes, there is at least a little bit of direct democracy in there: ‘A petition, delivered to the Chairman of the Board, signed by not less than 10,000 Party Members’ .
That is a not inconsiderable number. Even back in the late ’90s when the constitution was first composed, it was a lot – and as the Party has shrunk, that 10,000 becomes a large proportion of the membership. Nonetheless, it isn’t completely impossible, particularly in the digital age. A young Conservative activist named Soutiam Goodarzi has started a petition which has so far topped 1,000 signatures.
However, there are two issues. First, time. The rules say that if a petition is successful, it triggers a postal ballot of the Constitutional College (the Convention, plus MPs, MEPs and senior peers). But that would take place somewhere between 28 and 56 days after the petition was received. That would be too late for many people, and would still be reliant on passing a high turnout bar in the Constitutional College vote.
Second, the rule change itself. Goodarzi’s motion calls for the 12-month rule to be reduced to three months, which would effectively allow an immediate ballot. Oddly enough, the rule on confidence ballots by MPs is not in the constitution. I see no reason why Goodarzi’s petition couldn’t effectively add her version, as that would count as a change to the constitution. The rules on electing new leaders are in the constitution, so it wouldn’t be completely off-topic to make an addition. But the actual rule making repeat no confidence ballots annual – Rule Six – sits elsewhere: in the desk of the Secretary of the 1922 Committee.
Get the 1922 committee to change Rule Six
Yes, the no confidence rule is actually controlled by the ’22, and has been since the Hague-era ‘Fresh Future’ days in the late 1990s. As Archie Hamilton and Michael Spicer, both former Chairmen of the 1922 Committee, pointed out on Sunday:
‘…the 1922 Committee drew up the current rules concerning confidence votes and have thus have ownership of them… if MPs believe that this rule is an impediment to their proper function and responsibilities for the leadership of their Party it is quite within their right to change these provisions… Conservative MPs are responsible for their party. If they wish a change these rules there is nothing standing in their way.’
This sounds simpler than a 10,000 member petition, or passing a turnout bar in a ballot of the constitutional college. It is indeed simpler numerically, but not politically. The 1922 Committee executive hosts a range of opinions on the Prime Minister herself, but also reportedly last week “agreed that it was against natural justice” to change the rules as a measure to winkle May out of office.
Call an Extraordinary General Meeting of the National Convention to no confidence May (and/or change the constitution)
In Schedule 3 of the Party constitution, the Prime Minister’s critics have found their latest possible approach: ‘a petition signed by not less than sixty-five Constituency Association Chairmen’ compels there to be an Extraordinary General Meeting of the National Convention, the body officially representing the voluntary Party.
Efforts are, I’m told, underway to secure enough signatures in order to do so, so that the Convention can then vote no confidence in May. (Theoretically, such a meeting could also trigger a ballot on changing the constitution if it wished, but it would be even slower than a successful petition).
The timescales are not ideal: Convention members are guaranteed a minimum of 28 days’ notice of a meeting, in writing, and if the Party apparatus wanted to delay the event there are a myriad of ways in which they could try to do so.
Ultimately, if enough association chairmen’s signatures are gathered, and a Convention EGM is called, and that meeting votes no confidence, it’s worth wondering what would have changed. It would be another embarrassment for the Prime Minister, but she has ridden out many embarrassments before.
If rulebook warfare doesn’t work, might persuasion succeed?
Her unwillingness to take the hint is a common factor across several of the above approaches. The firmest sanctions – changing the rules to allow her to be forced out – take more time than is available, and/or run up against the unwillingness of some MPs to take part. Other approaches – submitting more letters to Brady, holding indicative votes of MPs, getting the Convention to no confidence May – might be more easily achieved, but are less forceful or binding.
Some, at least, hope that if they can heap up enough evidence of demand for her to resign – from the Party’s members, councillors, MPs, donors, institutions, voters – then the sheer weight of evidence might persuade her. That if enough people are all of one voice, she could no longer ignore the situation.
But this returns us to the fundamental stumbling block: the Prime Minister herself. Would warnings that the Convention and the ’22 were set to publicly express no confidence in her leadership carry enough weight, where so many Cabinet resignations and other brickbats have been shrugged off? Might tough election results illustrate the damage she is doing, as candidates and constituents lose out and the Opposition make gains? Or will she simply try to go on and on, regardless?