How Does A Tory Leadership Contest Work?

As Boris Johnson's premiership hangs in the balance, here's what could happen next.
Boris Johnson visits Finchley Memorial Hospital in North London on Tuesday.
Boris Johnson visits Finchley Memorial Hospital in North London on Tuesday.
IAN VOGLER via Getty Images

A little over two years after Boris Johnson’s stunning general election victory that apparently re-aligned British politics as we knew it, the prime minister is in trouble.

Reports suggest the requisite 54 letters from disgruntled Tory MPs that would launch a “no confidence vote” in the PM could be received on Wednesday. It could spell the end for his premiership.

MPs are furious at the prime minister’s handling of the partygate scandal engulfing Westminster and angered further by Johnson’s insistence that “nobody” had told him a party at Downing Street would break rules he himself had set.

The 2019 intake – remember that Red Wall? – are particularly alarmed, which makes sense given their slim majorities after votes were “lent” to them during the last election. Many are said to be preparing to submit their letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs, Graham Brady, who sets the agenda on Conservative leadership contests.

Bury South MP Christian Wakeford – who has a majority of just 402 – became the seventh Conservative MP to publicly call for Johnson to go on Tuesday, according to Yahoo News.

So what would happen next?

If the PM does not quit as Conservative party leader, Tory MPs can trigger a leadership contest if 15% of Tory MPs write to the chair of the 1922 Committee (Brady) saying they no longer have confidence in the leader.

A vote of no confidence is then held, with Conservative MPs voting anonymously in support or against the leader. A leader who loses a confidence vote is not allowed to take part in the subsequent leadership contest.

Based on the current parliamentary maths, 54 letters would prompt a confidence vote in Johnson.

It’s worth noting Brady does not publicly state how many letters he has received – hence the sustained intrigue.

Can Johnson be ousted another way?

Yes, by a motion of no confidence taken by parliament, rather than the Tory Party.

A confidence motion is a way of testing whether the prime minister and their Cabinet still has the support of the House of Commons.

It has the power to trigger a general election and could see a new prime minister appointed.

Under rules in place since 2011, if the government loses, it has 14 days to try to win back the confidence of MPs through another vote.

At the same time, opposition parties can try to form their own alternative government.

After a fortnight, if no resolution is found, an election is automatically called.

Is there precedent for such a motion?

Yes, plenty – including votes that have ended up bringing down the government.

The James Callaghan Labour administration lost a confidence vote in 1979, which paved the way for a general election and Margaret Thatcher’s 11-year reign.

During the Brexit deadlock, Theresa May survived a confidence vote in January 2019 after it had been called for by then Labour and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Despite the motion being rejected by 325 to 306 votes, Mrs May would end up quitting as prime minister months later after failing to garner support for her EU exit deal.

A motion of no confidence has been laid down by the Liberal Democrats – but it was only an Early Day Motion designed to voice opinions on issues of the day (sometimes referred to as political graffiti).


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