I have made the point previously that rules and structures are not neutral in their effect. Utilising one set of rules can result in a different outcome than if another set is employed. In a previous post, I observed that if the Labour Party had the same rules as the Conservative Party for electing a leader, it is unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn would have been elected party leader. (One doubts he would have made it to the final two candidates to be placed before the party members.) Had the Labour Party the same rules as the Conservative Party for getting rid of a leader, Jeremy Corbyn would likely be out of the leadership. In the PLP, a vote of no confidence in the leadership has no formal consequences. In the Conservative Party, such a vote is definitive.
In 1990, Michael Heseltine stood against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for the leadership of the Conservative Party. His leadership ambitions had been well trailed. Mrs Thatcher failed to get enough votes in the first ballot in order to be declared re-elected. Media stories are now appearing suggesting that Boris Johnson may ‘challenge’ Theresa May for the party leadership. The terminology is somewhat ambiguous, appearing to imply that there may be a battle similar to that of 1990, a blond, ambitious, publicity-seeking former senior minister challenging a female Prime Minister for the party leadership. The problem with this is that since the Thatcher-Heseltine battle the rules have changed. No one can stand directly against the party leader. Party members will not be able to vote in a May v Johnson contest. The party leader no longer comes up for annual (or indeed any) re-election. A leader who wishes to continue in office can be removed only by a vote of no confidence of the party’s MPs.
For a vote of confidence to be held, 15% of Conservative MPs (which means, on current numbers, 48) must write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee requesting such a vote. If that number is reached, a vote is automatic. The leader can address the 1922 before the vote takes place. A vote of no confidence was triggered in 2003 when Iain Duncan Smith was leader. Despite him making what was possibly his best speech as leader to the 1922, he lost the vote. Under the rules, a leader who has lost the vote cannot then stand in the subsequent election. Instead, new candidates are nominated. If there is only one, that candidate is declared elected, as was the case in 2003 with Michael Howard. If there are more than two candidates, eliminating ballots are held until only two remain and those two names then go before the party leadership.
If Boris Johnson wanted to challenge Theresa May for the party leadership, he would need to (a) persuade 48 MPs to write to Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922, to trigger a no confidence vote, (b) get a majority of Conservative MPs to vote for the motion of no confidence, (c) assuming he was not the sole candidate or one of only two nominated, get sufficient support among MPs to ensure he was in the final two to be put before the party membership, and (d) get a majority of party members to vote for him against the other candidate.
Does what happened in 1990 have any relevance to today under different rules? The Heseltine challenge was seen by many as confirming that whoever wields the dagger rarely inherits the crown. Challenging the leader is fraught. A contended only has to fall at one of the four hurdles to be denied their goal. Even if successful in removing a leader, it may result in someone else reaching the top of the greasy pole.
For those thinking the prize may be within their grasp, there is always the possibility of an ‘I forgot Goschen’ moment…