It’s looking increasingly likely that the Conservative Party will be electing a fourth new leader since the Coalition victory of 2010.
Accusations of rule-breaking over lockdown and the emergence of a drinking culture at No10, which has seen the Prime Minister forced to apologise to both the House of Commons and the Queen, have resulted in a double-digit poll lead for Labour while Boris Johnson’s personal approval ratings have plummeted.
A misfired reset, dubbed Operation Red Meat, lasted less than 24 hours while the latest revelations from Boris Johnson’s former Chief of Staff, Dominic Cummings, that the PM knew the infamous May 20th party broke the rules have added rocket fuel to the story. Older hands in the Parliamentary Party are waiting for the outcome of the Cabinet Office report, led by Sue Gray, into a growing list of parties also alleged to have broken the rules before deciding on the Prime Minister’s future. Recent events, however, have prompted a Pork Pie Putsch (so-called because one of the ring leaders is the MP for Melton Mowbray) among the 2019 ‘red wall’ intake who fear they are about to lose their seats. The rebellion is, in effect, a coordinated campaign to trigger a leadership election to replace Boris Johnson.
While it would be a mistake to underestimate Boris Johnson’s ability to get out of a tight corner, the received wisdom now is that he has run out of road. For various reasons to do with politics rather than the constitution, he may not fall immediately – but the question is now not if but when. This means a period of uncertainty for business as well as politics, as the Conservatives try to decide what to do. In the meantime, Johnson and potential leadership contenders will need to seek support from the right of the Party, both in Parliament and among its membership. Factions such as the European Research Group led by Steve Baker are already twitchy about tax rises, Brexit, and climate change and this could result in a change in policy direction on key planks of the Government’s economic and industrial strategy. If there is a successful leadership challenge then pressure would grow for an early general election, which could result in a further change in direction if Labour, either as the largest party or as part of a coalition, were to win.
The key milestones now are Prime Minister’s Questions this afternoon after which more letters are expected to be submitted to Sir Graham Brady. This will be closely followed by the publication of the Gray Report which could come as early as the end of the week. Sue Gray does not have the power to condemn a Prime Minister or make recommendations about their future; however, if there is evidence that the Prime Minister was aware of rule-breaking at the time and mislead the House it is almost certain he will face a challenge.
So, what happens next?
No confidence in the leader.
- A leadership contest takes place when 15% (54 MPs) of Conservative MPs write to the chair of the party’s 1922 Committee (a committee representing backbench Conservative MPs) calling for a contest.
- MPs then vote in support or against the leader. This can happen quickly. For example, the no confidence vote in Theresa May was held on 12 December 2018, the day after she was informed that the 15% threshold had been reached.
- Under current rules, if more than 50% of all Conservative MPs vote in support of the prime minister, they can stay as party leader and prime minister and no new vote can be triggered for 12 months.
- If the leader lost the confidence vote among Conservative MPs, they would not be able to stand again – allowing any other Conservative MP to stand for the party leadership.
If a leadership contest is necessary, then Sir Graham Brady sets a date and the election is run on a knockout basis amongst MPs and then put to the membership.
To succeed in the first round, a candidate would have to obtain more than 50% of the vote and be 15% clear of the second-place candidate. If no one manages this, further rounds of voting will take place.
To be nominated each candidate needs to be supported by eight other MPs and balloting will take place over the course of a week with all candidates with the fewest votes eliminated. Voting will continue until there is a shortlist of two who will go forward to a vote by Conservative Party members.
This process took over six weeks during the last leadership election with the final two candidates (Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt) undergoing a round of hustings across the country.
Whatever happens this week the outcome will be a lack of certainty; either with a Prime Minister wounded below the water line and who is leaking authority, or with a governing party plunged into a leadership election at a time of national peril both at home and abroad.