Morning Briefing: Chaos in the Cabinet

July 10, 2018

On Sunday night, the resignation of the Brexit secretary, David Davis, led to the government stumbling into yet another crisis. Since Theresa May’s bungled attempt at increasing the Conservative overall majority last year, Mr Davis has remained loyal and undoubtedly helped her to remain in post. His resignation alone could very well have spelt the end of her time in Downing Street. However, the Prime Minister has proved more resilient than most given her tenuous position and she may well have just about survived the loss of Mr Davis. The resignation of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary put paid to that, Mrs May is finished and her time as Prime Minister is coming to a close. The only question that remains is when exactly that will be and what the consequences of that are for both the Conservative Party and the country. It will also be of historical interest to see whether she fights on to the end, or folds quickly to avoid the humiliation of being ousted against her will by Tory MPs. For the fourth successive Tory Prime Minister, the issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe has proved fatal.

Firstly, in order to bring about a leadership contest, either Theresa May has to resign voluntarily or 15 percent of the parliamentary Conservative Party must write a letter to the chairman of the 1922 committee, Sir Graham Brady, declaring that they no longer have confidence in the Prime Minister. This equates to 48 Conservative Members of Parliament and rumours have been circulating for several months that the figure is close to being met but it could well be met within the next few days or indeed hours. Once the magic number has been met, then there will be a confidence vote in the Prime Minister by Conservative MPs. In order to remain in office, she must win the support of 159 (half plus one) of them. If that is the case, then she remains in office and is immune from a further confidence vote for a 12-month period. If not, then she must resign as leader of the Conservative Party (and of course Prime Minister) and is barred from standing in the subsequent leadership contest. In 2003, Iain Duncan Smith was ousted as party leader in this manner, with the ballot being held the day after the 15 percent threshold was met.

If she were to lose a confidence vote, then a leadership contest would follow and given the current bitter splits within the parliamentary Conservative Party, it would be brutal. Conservative MPs would then put their names forward to become leader and if more than two do so, then the parliamentary party whittles the field down to two by a system of first-past-the-post in reverse. The final two names are then put to the party membership for a ballot with the winner becoming party leader and Prime Minister. Following David Cameron’s resignation in 2016, Mrs May was elected on account of being the last nominee standing after her opponent, Andrea Leadsom, withdrew from the race. This negated the need for a ballot of party members. This time, it would certainly be a wide field of candidates to start with and would be very unlikely that the winner does not have to get the backing of the party’s membership. On the last two occasions that a governing party has changed leader, they have been unopposed, but this time that would seem very unlikely. Of course, Theresa May might well chose that as Prime Minister, she does not want to face the indignity of a confidence vote in her leadership and consequently, she may well simply announce her resignation if the 48 letters come in.

Once a new Prime Minister is installed, they will then face the same speculation that Theresa May did in 2016 about whether or not they will ‘call’ a snap general election to gain a personal mandate. Mrs May has left her successor with an interesting dilemma, the precedent is now set but, there is no constitutional obligation for a new leader to go for it before 2022 and there is no saying that the Tories would win. Given the delay between Theresa May becoming Prime Minister and the 2017 snap general election, a new Prime Minister and Conservative leader is likely to want to go to the country as quickly as possible to exploit their inevitable honeymoon period in the polls rather than hanging around. However, the result of such an election would be by no means a certainty and it is hard to imagine that there is much of an appetite for yet another public vote; just over a year after the last one.

Indeed, this theoretical snap general election cannot be as ‘snappy’ as in the old days due to the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments act. This piece of legislation has two provisions for an early general election. The first is that the government must lose a vote of confidence in the house of commons by a simple majority and that no alternative government can be formed within two weeks. Given that the Conservatives and Democratic Unionists have a small overall majority, voting down their own government would look strange in the eyes of the public. The second route is for a motion to pass by a two thirds majority declaring that there should be a general election, this is the route employed by Theresa May last year and would be the preferred way of bringing about a fresh poll. This would, however, require the support of the Labour Party and although they would be unlikely to decline the chance to take Jeremy Corbyn’s case to the country once again, it is by no means certain that they would vote for it.

The Conservatives and Labour are currently locked into a dead heat in the polls, with different polls from different companies showing small leads for both of the main parties. On average, the Conservatives are marginally ahead and a boost for the party given a change of leader would probably temporarily increase this to five or more points. To win an outright overall majority, a new Conservative leader would need to net an additional eight seats, requiring a swing of just 0.3-percentage points from Labour. This is by no means as easy as it sounds. It would mean bucking the historic trend that once a governing party has started losing seats, it continues losing them until it has moved into opposition. For the Conservatives though, there is a very small lifeline in the form of ten (currently) members of parliament from the Democratic Unionist Party. Since the 2017 election, they have propped up the Conservatives via a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement and are very unlikely to install a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. Given that Sinn Fein don’t take their seats in parliament and that the speaker does not vote, this currently leaves the magic number for an overall majority at 322 and means that the Conservatives can afford to lose a further five seats and probably remain the governing party, albeit they really would be clinging on.

Once below that figure (312), then things begin to get difficult. The Democratic Unionist Party would no longer be enough to nudge them over the winning line and they would be running out of options. Lady Sylvia Hermon could possibly be persuaded to support the Tories, but probably not and the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to want to enter any kind of agreement with them given what happened the last time that they installed a Conservative Prime Minister. Beyond that, the Conservatives are friendless. Labour, on the other hand would not need to make a spectacular number of net gains and could theoretically eject the Conservatives from power. Assuming that there are no changes amongst the ‘others’, if Labour were to pick off eight seats from the Conservatives, then a combination of 270 Labour, 35 Scottish Nationalists, 12 Liberal Democrats, four Plaid Cymru and one Green would have a total of 322 members of parliament, enough for Jeremy Corbyn to form a very wobbly minority government. Wobbly as it may be, the point is that the Tories would have lost power. Certainly, they would be the largest party and relatively comfortably but they would be on the opposition benches and not governing. If there were any larger swing to Labour, of 1.63-percentage points or more, then Labour would become the largest party and it would definitely be game over for the Tories.

As things stand, Theresa May is still Prime Minister and whilst her position is now ridiculously precarious, she hasn’t gone anywhere just yet. A week is a long time in politics and at the minute things are possibly the most volatile that they have been since 1945. In the next few days, things will probably become clearer but it is certainly looking likely that the 48 letters that Mrs May dreads will arrive at Sir Graham Brady’s door within the immediate future. It is then a question of what happens next as to whether she survives as party leader or is replaced and then of course, whether Britain ends up back at the polls before Christmas. In that eventuality, then Jeremy Corbyn may well realise his dream of walking through the famous black door in Downing Street at the head of the first Labour government in over eight years.

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