Confused about what on earth is happening in British politics right now? You are not the only one. But help is at hand. For all the tweeting, I thought it might be an idea to set out what can or cannot happen. To help us grasp the reality of what is going on and what might happen, let’s ask some questions.
1. How bad is it?
It’s very bad. The prime minister had only just managed to secure apparent agreement at Chequers over the weekend before it all went belly-up.
First, David Davis resigned as a matter of principle because he did not feel he could support the PM’s proposal. In an interview on Monday, Davis said: ‘It seems to me we’re giving too much away, too easily, and that’s a dangerous strategy at this time.’
This was bad enough, although not necessarily critical. Rumours that Davis could quit have been around for some time. But then, foreign secretary Boris Johnson resigned too. In his letter to the PM, he said ‘the Brexit dream is dying’.
He also savaged the PM’s plan: ‘We are truly headed for the status of colony… it is as though we are sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering above then.’
This was the first time since at least 1979 that two cabinet members have quit within 24 hours of each other (not including cabinet reshuffles). Clearly, losing two front-bench, high-profile, Brexit supporting ministers is not ideal for the Remain supporting Prime Minister.
2. Can the PM survive a leadership contest?
Yes, she can. The real question is not whether there will be another general election, but whether there will be a new leader of the Conservative Party.
Based on the response from Downing Street so far to the prospect of a leadership contest, Mrs May clearly thinks she can win. The message from the PM’s spokesman was that if there was a leadership contest, she would fight it. This was the PM’s way of saying to the rebels: bring it on.
3. How does a Conservative Party leadership election work?
A leadership election in the Conservative Party can be triggered in two ways:
a. If the leader resigns – triggering a leadership election
b. If 15 per cent (currently 48 MPs) write to the Cchairman of the 1922 Committee – made up of all backbench conservative MPs – saying they no longer have confidence in Mrs May. If the chairman receives the required votes, he is duty bound to order a vote of no confidence in Mrs May. At this point, only the 310 Conservative MPs can vote.
The PM then needs to win backing from 50 per cent of her 310 MPs (155) and if she does, under new rules there cannot be another vote of no confidence in her leadership for 12 months. But if Mrs May loses, the chairman of the 1922 will organise a leadership contest. Any Tory MP can stand.
If a leadership election is triggered, there are two stages:
1. Conservative MPs select two candidates to present to the rest of the party.
2. Party members then vote for their preferred candidate, from a shortlist of two.
When it comes to stage one, voting continues until there are only two candidates left. Then the two candidates are put forward to the party’s grassroots (currently approximately 124,000 members).
4. Could Theresa May just do a John Major?
In 1995, former Tory PM John Major famously called a leadership contest which he won. He did so to increase his own authority as leader. Faced with challenges to her authority, could Mrs May do the same?
No, because since Major pulled the stunt there’s been a change in the rules meaning that option is not open to Theresa May.
5. How is a general election triggered?
There are two ways we could end up with another (!) general election:
a. If a motion of no confidence is called and 50 per cent of MPs across the House of Commons back it.
b. The PM becomes frustrated by her inability to pass key legislation calls one herself.
If the Commons agrees to a vote of no confidence and loses it, and after 14 days a new government cannot command the support of a parliamentary majority, then parliament is dissolved and a general election held. In the second scenario, the PM’s election call would need to be backed by two thirds of the House of Commons.
It’s hard to conceive Mrs May calling an election herself, given it was hardly a success the last time.
Who said politics is boring? It’s currently in a constant state of flux and the pieces are all up in the air. There’s no doubting the PM’s remarkable resilience. But for much longer can she survive?
For what it’s worth, I don’t think there is much appetite among MPs for another general election. Whether that’s true when it comes to a leadership content for the Tory party, remains to be seen.
Watch this space….
James Mildred is communications manager for CARE, but writes in a personal capacity.