PLMR Insights: How would a vote of ‘no confidence’ in the Prime Minister and a leadership challenge work?

With Boris Johnson under immense pressure following revelations of parties at Downing Street, what actually needs to happen for a vote of no confidence and potential leadership challenge to take place?

Step 1 – 54 letters

 Failing Boris Johnson’s resignation, the only people with the power to remove the Prime Minister are his MPs. To begin the process, the Chair of the 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady MP, must receive letters of no confidence from 15% of Conservative MPs. Because there are now 358 Tory MPs, the number of letters required is 54. In theory, nobody apart from the Chair of 1922 Committee knows how many have been submitted, however, once the threshold is exceeded, he must inform the Prime Minister to schedule a no-confidence vote. The timetable for this is agreed in consultation with the Chair, along with Boris Johnson. In what seems like a lifetime ago, Theresa May’s vote was held the day after the required letters were submitted, meaning there could even be a vote prior to Sue Gray’s report being published.

Step 2 – Confidence vote

Step 2 will involve Conservative MPs voting in a secret ballot on whether they have confidence in Boris Johnson as Leader. This means Conservative MPs will not physically walk through the lobby as they would do in a Commons vote, but instead cast their ballot paper anonymously. If more than 50% of all Conservative MPs (180 MPs) vote in support of Johnson, he can stay as Party Leader and Prime Minister and no new vote can be triggered for 12 months. If he loses the vote, a leadership election will be scheduled, and Johnson would not be allowed to stand again. All other Conservative MPs would be eligible to stand, and if they win, they will become Prime Minister as a result. There must always be a Prime Minister, and if Boris Johnson were to resign, convention dictates that he stays in post until a new leader is elected, as Theresa May and David Cameron did.

Even if Johnson does win, he may conclude that he simply doesn’t have the authority to continue. In December 2018, Theresa May faced a no confidence vote, and despite winning by 200 votes to 117 voting, was forced to step down as Prime Minister after successive defeats in the Commons on Brexit – just six months after surviving the ballot.

Step 3 – Electing a new Party Leader and Prime Minister

The Conservative Party leadership election takes place in two stages. The first is known as the ‘shortlisting’, where Conservative MPs put their own names forward. MPs then vote in a series of rounds to whittle down the candidates. In the first two rounds, the candidates who don’t meet a certain threshold of votes are eliminated. For all subsequent ballots, the candidate who comes last is eliminated, until there are only two candidates remaining. In stage two, the party membership is balloted on which of the two final candidates they prefer.

The length of the contest’s first stage will largely be determined by the number of candidates. In the 2019 leadership election candidates needed the support of eight MPs (proposer, seconder and six others) to stand. Candidates needed votes from 5% of Conservative MPs in the first ballot (more than 16 MPs), and 10% of Conservative MPs in the second ballot (more than 32 MPs). The first stage of the 2019 leadership contest took two weeks, starting on 7 June and finishing on 20 June 2019. Stage two took a month, with the new leader announced on 23 July 2019.

Analysis – Can the Prime Minister survive?

Following another tumultuous day in Westminster yesterday, while the defection of former Conservative Red Wall MP Christian Wakeford to the Labour Party has redirected some backbench anger and given the Prime Minister a bit of breathing room, it now looks extremely likely that the 54-letter threshold will be breached at some point. This is likely after the publication of the long-awaited Sue Gray report, which Boris Johnson informed MPs would be published next week. What hangs in the balance is whether he can survive the subsequent vote of no confidence. To oust him, 180 MPs are required to vote against the Prime Minister, a significant jump from 54. Nevertheless, any vote will be conducted anonymously, restricting the ability of the Whips’ Office to cajole MPs in the same way they would in a normal Commons vote.

In the event of a vote, the Whips will still be scrambling to ask MPs to publicly declare their support for the Prime Minister. During the vote on Theresa May’s leadership, MPs were even made to post a picture of their ballot paper on Twitter before submission. Although this will give the Whips some idea of how close they are to the figure Johnson needs to survive, there is of course a risk that public assurances are abandoned when the actual voting begins.

Even if he does win the vote, he may decide, as Theresa May did, that he simply no longer has the authority to fight the next election, and opts to provide a timetable for his departure. Regardless of the outcome, possible successors will want the outgoing Prime Minister to absorb as much negativity as possible, enabling them to reset the agenda, and draw a line under the allegations that proved fatal for Boris Johnson. Even then, they face no easy task, and will arrive to an unenviable in-tray of inflation reaching a thirty year high, spiralling public debt, and most difficult of all, balancing the interests of traditional Tory voters in the South-East with those of the Red Wall, an issue that has already created immense friction within the party on issues such as taxation and housing.

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