What would a Conservative leadership election look like?

Photo by EU2017EE Estonian Presidency on Flickr, reproduced under Creative Commons licence CC BY 2.0.

In a post just before Christmas, I identified multiple possible processes for Theresa May’s exit from Downing Street, but only two likely ones for an undignified exit in the near term: a confidence vote among Conservative MPs; and a collapse of the Cabinet in response to some external crisis.

Speculation currently abounds that a confidence vote among Conservative MPs could soon be triggered by the submission of 48 letters to Sir Graham Brady MP, the Chair of the 1922 Committee. The first thing to observe here is that this does not mean that a leadership crisis for the Conservatives is necessarily imminent. Things could quieten down again quite quickly — in a fortnight’s time, January’s speculation could seem like nothing more than a brief rush of blood to Westminster’s collective head. It’s worth remembering that disquiet under Gordon Brown rumbled loudly and even reached frenzied levels, but never resulted in a challenge. Then again, Labour has no meaningful ‘ejector seat’ mechanism for its leader, while the Tories do. Another point of contrast is that Brown had to make it less than three years from his formation of a government until a general election; Mrs May has to see out over four years from now until the next one is officially due, and deliver Brexit during that time — her path seems both longer and rockier. So past precedent may or may not be a useful guide — but it does probably caution us not to get carried away with the speculation.

A further interesting question about triggering a challenge is: who’s putting the no-confidence letters in? The Brexit extremists (members of the European Research Group in particular) and the centrist Remainers (Clarke, Soubry, Grieve, Greening, Morgan et al)? At least some of the latter have stated they do not wish to see Mrs May ousted, so perhaps it is just the former group — but it seems possible that both extreme wings of the parliamentary Conservative party could combine (wittingly or not) to force a challenge.

So it could kick off soon, or it could all come to nothing. But as an exercise, let’s consider how a contest might play out from a process point of view, and try mapping some of the actual politics of today (though probably not tomorrow) onto those processes.

The confidence vote
The 48 letters do not trigger an immediate leadership contest. Rather, they mandate a confidence vote in the leader. Only if Mrs May loses would a leadership contest happen — and she would be automatically excluded from it (while no doubt remaining Prime Minister until her successor is identified). But could she in fact win a confidence vote and render the whole thing moot? Might most of her MPs decide they have no truck with the 48 of their colleagues who forced it? It’s possible.

However, precedent suggests anything other than a really, truly crushing victory would politically oblige her to resign, on the grounds that continuing as Prime Minister without the support of a chunk of the parliamentary party, even if a minority, would not be viable over the long term (as happened with Thatcher after her slightly unconvincing win in the first round of the contest in 1990, and with Chamberlain in 1940 when he won the critical Commons vote, but not by enough to feel confident about the level of support he enjoyed). Then again (repeat until you’re blue in the face), precedent may not be a useful guide.

The vote may present a very difficult choice for a lot of MPs. Some might conclude that even if Mrs May wins this one, it will just be a matter of time until the next one [EDIT although it would buy her 12 months’ safety during which no further confidence vote could be held — with thanks to Tony Kilner for pointing me towards that provision in the rulebook… If anything, one wonders if being definitively imprisoned in the job for 12 months might be the worst possible thing that could happen to Mrs May. /EDIT]. With so long to go until the next election, would MPs really feel that a successful confidence vote now would secure Mrs May’s position for the rest of the parliament, as John Major’s put-up-or-shut-up gambit did from 1995 to 1997? Would they even want it to? Probably not. They may therefore decide to get it over with and force a contest. Equally, the Cabinet may advise her not to contest the confidence vote anyway and instead to announce her resignation, in the same way as Thatcher’s advised her that she would be unlikely to win the upcoming second round.

So, it’s not certain that a confidence vote would spell the end for Mrs May if one is called, but it seems fairly likely.

The leadership election
There’s lots of credible speculation that the field to succeed Mrs May would be huge. Either way, whether the field is large or small, the next part of the process involves Conservative MPs whittling down a longlist of nominated candidates to a final two, to be submitted to the membership of the party. It does this in a succession of secret ballots, the lowest-polling candidate being eliminated each time (with the option for others to withdraw between rounds if they wish). Ballots take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so if there really are a lot of candidates and few or none of them withdraw between rounds, it could take a couple of weeks. Candidates must be MPs and not, for instance, MSPs or peers.

A key consideration seems to me to be this: if a hard Brexit candidate gets through to the final two (a Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Priti Patel, a Johnson or Gove if that’s the flag they decide to sail under), against a moderate Remainer or even Leaver, they will win the membership vote. Though they have their limits, the ConHome polls routinely point that way. However, with the European Research Group numbering up to 80 or so MPs, the Brexit extremists are a clear minority among Conservative MPs.

To avoid such a politician becoming Prime Minister (assuming they want to avoid it), the mainstream of Conservative MPs would have to engineer a whipping project to split the majority vote effectively between two moderate candidates to go through as the final two — although this will be a dicey proposition and could be miscalculated, not to mention being definitely against the spirit of the rules. But a ‘safe’ end result could be 110-odd votes each for Moderate 1 and Moderate 2, and 80-odd for the extreme Brexit candidate. In this scenario, whichever of the two moderates is elected as leader, there might be little actual change of policy on Brexit compared to Mrs May’s approach — and the new leader would therefore face exactly the same dilemma of trying to craft a workable policy while keeping the party in one piece behind them.

But if a really staunch Brexiter were to be elected Conservative leader, there could be immediate procedural ramifications.

The new Prime Minister: Jeremy Corbyn
Much would depend on the policy intent signalled by the new leader during and immediately after the leadership contest. In the event of a hardline Brexiter winning the leadership, they would presumably have stood on the basis of making some very tough demands to Brussels, and of being willing to countenance a ‘no deal’ scenario and/or exiting the EU without a transition period. Given that Brussels would inevitably refuse a deal on hardline terms, this approach would guarantee a no-deal Brexit if the UK were to see it through. It seems likely that such a policy approach would be unacceptable to the ‘saboteur’ wing of Remainer Conservative MPs.

One would therefore expect a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government to be tabled pretty swiftly by an opposition party. Presuming the newly elected Conservative leader gave every indication of sticking to their guns, there would probably be enough votes, including the rebel Tories, to carry it, and the Government would fall.

The exact timing of this would determine whether the new leader would be Prime Minister for a record-breaking short tenure, or whether they might not make it to Downing Street at all. Nobody has ever been elected leader of the Conservative Party in a ballot of the membership while the party has been in office (indeed, only Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron have gone through such a ballot at all). So it is not clear whether the winner of the contest would proceed from the announcement of the results straight to the Palace (allowing only enough time for Mrs May to see the Queen and resign), or whether there would be a day or two in which the leader’s identity is known but they haven’t yet become Prime Minister. In 2016, Mrs May had two days after Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the contest to make preparations for assembling her Cabinet. If a newly elected leader has a similar grace period, the motion of confidence could potentially be tabled and voted on during it. Alternatively, if the new leader is appointed Prime Minister immediately, it would presumably be their initial speech in Downing Street that would be crucial for indicating whether or not they really would take such a hard line in the Brexit negotiations.

Whatever the timing, once the Commons has voted that it does not have confidence in the Government, there is only one course of action: the Prime Minister must resign and the Queen must invite Jeremy Corbyn to form an administration. In these circumstances, it would not be plausible for the new Conservative leader to attempt to cobble together another majority in the Commons, or use doing so as a pretext to ‘run down’ the clock to a general election — it would be plain that they did not enjoy the confidence of the House and could not be PM.

Mr Corbyn will however have to pass a motion of confidence of his own within two weeks, under the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, which will have been initiated by the first motion of confidence. How this pans out will then be down to Mr Corbyn’s handling of the politics: presumably there would be at least a chance that the Conservative rebels who brought down the late Government would be willing to support him in the interests of national unity at a time of crisis, thus securing him in office.

Obviously this is just one way it could play out, with all sorts of assumptions, guesses and leaps — although none on their own by any means crazy, I think. But one doesn’t have to look far into these sorts of scenario to see that a leadership challenge to Mrs May, however laboured her leadership may be, could create serious problems for the Conservative Party.

Working in public policy and writing here about politics, infrequently, in a purely personal capacity.

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