We read in the weekend papers that the Brexiters within the Conservative party are mustering for an attempt in July to despatch Theresa May, once Royal Assent has been received to the withdrawal bill. Sources close to David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg are covering their retreat in the face of the Prime Minister’s obduracy over future customs arrangements with the EU with a hail of Parthian shots. Her opponents already have 42 MPs ready to lodge letters for a vote of no confidence, we are told. 48 would mean that a vote would be held. We are told to expect an “almighty reckoning”.
Forgive me if I am sceptical. Such Lear-like ravings threatening the terrors of the earth advertise Theresa May’s opponents’ weakness, not their strength. If they were sure of their ground they would be acting now. Because if they were sure of their ground they could impose their will on the rest of the party. Evidently, they are not.
It’s worth recapping the mechanics of the Conservative Party leadership provisions. If at any time the chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, receives letters from 15% of Conservative MPs so requesting, a vote of confidence is held in the leader. The Conservatives have 316 MPs at present so that is where the figure of 48 MPs comes from.
The vote of confidence is then held by secret ballot among all MPs. If Theresa May wins, even by one vote, she cannot then be challenged for another year. If she loses, she must resign and is barred from standing in the subsequent leadership election contest. So the second important number of Conservative MPs is 158. It’s one thing to trigger a vote of confidence, you then have to win it.
Some suggest that Theresa May’s bar in practice is higher: how could she credibly govern if more than (say) 100 of her own MPs had privately declared that they had no confidence in her? This looks wrong to me. She has a year’s immunity from challenge.
She could and presumably would call for the party now to rally around her given that the question had been definitively settled for a year. She might even risk an aggressive reshuffle, safe from challenge from malcontents for 12 precious months. This would be unlikely to be to the benefit of the hardline Brexiters. You come at the queen, you best not miss.
How certain are the ERG and its penumbra of having 159 MPs ready to vote no confidence in Theresa May? Not at all, I suggest. They aren’t that numerous themselves. So they’re going to have to persuade some of the less monomaniac of their colleagues to join forces with them.
I have no doubt that there is a lot of dissatisfaction across the Conservative Parliamentary party with Theresa May. But the question that has hovered over the party for a year now, keeping her in the role, and which has yet to land on a conclusion is: who would be better? As importantly, who would get the job in practice?
If the ERG cannot identify a leadership solution that appeals to a broad enough cross-section of the Parliamentary party and, just as importantly, confirmation that unacceptable but potentially viable candidates are not going to be in the mix, unconvinced MPs will vote for Theresa May rather than risk making the problem worse.
So the ERG would need first to identify a suitable candidate and then to persuade them to allow themselves to be advertised to doubters in such a way. This is at best a work in progress. From the outside it looks like a work not yet started.
All this leads me to believe that this story is an empty threat. The ERG and its ministerial allies are seeking to cover their own weakness and perhaps to try to ensure that Theresa May does not seek to pull them further down the soft Brexit line.
Betfair have two markets on Theresa May’s exit date, one divided into quarters and one by year. In the last few days I have been laying the possibility of her leaving between July and September 2018 at odds of under 3/1 and laying the possibility of her leaving in 2018 at odds of under 2/1. Both odds have lengthened since, but the continuing absence of a potential successor who plotters can be confident of installing means that Theresa May is a lot safer than she looks.
If you disagree with me, there is an alternative bet (which is a good bet anyway). Jacob Rees-Mogg is a highly divisive figure and the possibility of him becoming next leader would be anathema to many outside his coterie. If Theresa May is to be deposed, he will need to make it quite clear that he will not stand for next Conservative leader, or the waverers will stick with the devil they know. So he’s an easy lay at present prices, which have been drifting anyway, if you think action is imminent.
His route to next leader looks very difficult whatever your view of the timing of the election. His present appeal is based around his positioning as Brexit’s Robespierre. But by 29 March 2019, Britain will be on the outside of the EU and at that point Jacob Rees-Mogg becomes just another backbencher with a hobbyhorse.
He might get there eventually (though he looks a poor bet to me, lacking anything other than superficial fluency and ideological orthodoxy) but it looks highly likely that the next Conservative leader will not have a double-barrelled name. I’m keeping a big red number next to his name in my book and my current intention is to do so right the way to the contest itself.