It has been a febrile Summer in the Conservative Party. Whilst Members of Parliament were on their Summer Holidays, it was clear that speculation over Theresa May’s future would not abate. In recent weeks, it has been suggested that a challenge to Theresa May’s leadership of the party, and therefore her position as Prime Minister, is imminent.
Theresa May became Prime Minister at an extremely difficult time. Arguably, only Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in more challenging circumstances. On 10th May 1940, the day that Churchill first became Prime Minister, he awoke to news that Germany had launched its invasion of France. Even Brexit cannot compare to that!
Theresa May became Prime Minister on the 13th July 2016, she had a slim majority of 17 seats and a divided party and country. The most divisive issue of course was how to handle Britain’s exit from the European Union. Apart from soundbites like “Brexit means Brexit”, there were little concrete plans.
On the 18th April 2017 Theresa May announced that she wanted to hold an early General Election. Under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011), two-thirds of Parliament had to agree, a mark they clearly surpassed when they voted by 522-13 in favour of an early election.
The election was far from a success for May. Her campaign was seen as lacklustre and her key policies, such as her social care policies, were widely criticised. She also refused to consent to leadership debates, giving the clear impression that she was running scared of Jeremy Corbyn. The election was a disaster, the Conservatives lost seats and in order to stay in power Theresa May was forced to agree a “confidence and supply” agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Since the election of June 2017, Theresa May’s continued premiership has been consistently questioned. There has been a growing sense that potential usurpers are biding their time and waiting to strike.
Among those most likely to provide a challenge to Theresa May’s leadership is the European Research Group (ERG). The ERG is a group of Conservative MPs that are in favour of exiting the European Union. It was founded in 1993 but has become increasingly powerful since the Referendum in 2016. The current Chairman of the ERG is Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has been a prominent critic of the Prime Minister’s Chequers Plan.
So how does the Tory Leadership process work?
- A total of 15% of Conservative MPs need to write a letter indicating a lack of confidence in the party leader to Graham Brady, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee. Currently this means that Brady needs to receive 48 letters. This automatically instigates a confidence vote in the leader. This would mean that the leader needs 50% to avoid a leadership election.
- If a leadership election takes place, candidates must be nominated by two other MPs to be placed on the ballot.
- MPs vote in a series of ballots until only two candidates remain
- The final two candidates are put to a national vote of all Conservative Party Members
Of course, this process is normally triggered by the resignation of a party leader. Most notably, this happened on June 2016 when David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister following the EU Referendum in June 2016.
However, there is history of a leadership election taking place without a resignation. In December 1989 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was opposed in a leadership election by Conservative backbencher, Anthony Meyer. She won convincingly by 84% to 8.8%. Then, in 1990, Michael Heseltine challenged Thatcher. Although Thatcher won 54.8% of the parliamentary vote, it was not enough to avoid a second ballot. She decided, on the advice of her cabinet, to resign before the second ballot. John Major then entered the contest and became Prime Minister.
The 1995 Conservative Leadership election was unique. This was because it was called by the sitting Prime Minister himself. Between 1992 and 1995 John Major had serious problems controlling his own party. In particular, the party was split over the issue of Europe. It seemed likely that there would be a leadership challenge to John Major at some point.
John Major took the radical step of preempting this. On the 22nd June 1995 he resigned as leader of the Conservative Party, telling his rebellious backbenchers to “put up or shut up”. In response, only one MP, John Redwood, did put up. Other far more prominent MPs, like Ken Clarke, Michael Portillo or Michael Heseltine, decided against running. Major won the vote comfortably, 66.3% to 27.1% and in doing so, reestablished his authority and carried on as Prime Minister until losing the 1997 General Election.
Speculation about Theresa May’s future has been consistent since the General Election of June 2017, where the Conservatives lost their small majority. Her Chequers Plan has divided a Conservative Party that was already divided over Brexit. It appears clear that there are potential challengers, most notably Boris Johnson. It is likely they are biding their time and waiting until after March 2019, when Britain has left the European Union, to make their move. It might well be that, like John Major, Theresa May’s best course of action is to tell her party to “put up, or shut up”.