Theresa May has been forced to make a public response to growing speculation that unrest within the Conservative Party will bring about a vote of no confidence in the near future. The prime minister arrived in China and told journalists that she is “not a quitter” and will go on to fight in the next general election, in 2022. Her comments come after a number of recent public statements from MPs expressing varying degrees of doubt over her leadership of the party.
In order for May to face a vote of no confidence, Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, must receive letters of request from 15% of sitting Conservative MPs, which, given the current parliamentary make-up, means 48 letters. The 1922 Committee is a highly influential group of backbench MPs within the Conservative Party that handles internal party democracy.
Reports vary on the exact number of letters Brady has received so far, with some newspapers claiming that it could be as many as 45. Even if the number is considerably less, the accumulative nature of the process, coupled with the difficult road May has ahead, means that without serious change, it’s a matter of not if a vote will be called, but when.
The disquiet among MPs is fuelled by a number of factors. The main one, perhaps obviously, is Brexit. The nature of the UK’s exit from the EU and the progression of negotiations causes the PM great difficulty with both the Remain and Leave camps within her party. The fear that she will cave to the demands of the other group is causing unrest on both sides.
For hard Brexiteers, there’s a growing concern that the UK will be leaving the EU in name alone, and will still be subject to its rules, laws and regulations, and pay into its budget, without having a say. Chancellor Philip Hammond’s comments in Davos that he would look for only “very modest” divergence from EU law after the transitional period, were met with uproar by Brexiteers, who forced Number 10 to brief against Hammond, disagreeing with his choice of phrase.
Prominent backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the influential Brexit-supporting European Research Group, has been among the most vocal of his peers to speak out about the government’s current direction, and was characteristically critical of Hammond, but stopped short of calling for his resignation — publicly, at least.
There are other reports that civil servants led by Brexit Chief Negotiator Ollie Robbins have made a number of concessions and compromises to Brussels already, including continued membership in the Customs Union. While a government minister described these rumours as “black propaganda from Brussels”, they will still add considerably to the Brexiteers’ concerns.
The feeling among many Leave MPs is that they have stood by May until now on the basis of her Brexit vision — largely laid out in the Lancaster House speech — but that vision seems to be drifting further and further from the realm of possibility. With a number of potential leaders with much greater Leave credentials than May waiting in the wings, the temptation to push for a vote of no confidence is likely growing.
In a testament to the precarious position that May finds herself in, by attempting to appease the hard-line Eurosceptics in her party by publicly denouncing Hammond’s comments, May has spooked the Pro-EU MPs in her party, giving them cause to believe that she is held captive by the Leavers. These Pro-EU MPs have so far only rebelled against the government on votes directly relating to Brexit, but will no doubt consider further action if they believe she will pursue the hard Brexit desired by Jacob Rees-Mogg and co.
Even with Brexit-related qualms aside, there are a considerable and reportedly rising number of Tory MPs who believe that under May’s leadership, the party lacks direction and ideas, both of which will be needed to halt the momentum of Jeremy Corbyn’s ascendant Labour Party.
Critical words from influential backbenchers such as Nick Boles and Robert Halfon, as well as comments by rising Tory star Johnny Mercer, are said to give voice to the mood among more centrist Tories, who feel that bold policy ideas on key issues like housing and the NHS are necessary. Even May’s former chief of staff, Nick Timothy, has spoken out about the need to accept that society is tired of austerity, and that on healthcare in particular, extra funding must be a focus, as well as reform.
Since May’s disastrous general election campaign, there has been a general consensus that her position as party leader will not be a long-term one, but that she should be kept on at the very least to work through the Brexit negotiations, to avoid upheaval during such an important time, and in doing so, avoid criticism of putting party before country. There have been two previous attempts to mount coups against the PM, both of which seemed to demonstrate a lack of appetite for a change in leadership.
However, a number of unforced errors, gaffes and scandals since then — from the party conference to January’s reshuffle — have made her position untenable, even in the short-term, in the eyes of some Conservative MPs. These MPs, and others currently on the fence over May’s leadership, will likely be looking toward the local election in May as a potential last-straw for the prime minister.
With all of this being said, it could be assumed that the silent majority within the Conservative Party and the cabinet — aside from perhaps Boris Johnson — would view the idea of upheaval within the party at this stage to be disastrous, not only electorally, but also for Brexit negotiations, which are entering their most crucial period. This seems to be the brief given to May’s political allies, with several high-ranking Tories calling for unity, and for MPs to get behind May. Many are reminding colleagues that the alternative might be Corbyn in Number 10.
Trade Secretary Liam Fox is the most recent to add his voice to this cause, vowing to support May for “as long as she wants to lead my party”. Though admirable in his intentions, no doubt, Fox might have inadvertently done more damage than good to May’s cause, given his refusal to rule out staying in the EU Customs Union, which will likely rile up more hard-line Brexiteers than himself.
His admissions that a trade deal with China will be “some time away” and that it is possible for Britain to increase trade with Non-EU countries while still in the Customs Union, which contradict many of the arguments made by himself and colleagues during the referendum, may cause further difficulty for the government.
Brexit, further headlines about problems with the NHS, a certain ex-chancellor making public calls for greater investment in education in the North of England, despite his own history of austerity, and the ongoing aftermath of the Carillion scandal all add to May and the government’s woes.
Dogged by scandal, incompetence and now brutal infighting, this government increasingly risks appearing to the public as though it places its own right to govern above the good of the country. This is a long-established criticism of the Conservative Party, and one which particularly does not sit well with working-class voters and voters in the north, areas in which the Tories have made gains in recent years.
For those who would like to see May deposed, the big question must be who will replace her. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, David Davis and Amber Rudd are widely considered to be the most likely contenders, none of whom command respect or support among a considerably larger swathe of the party than May currently does. These MPs must decide whether reward outweighs risk when considering their movements against the prime minister, given all that is at stake not just for their party, but the country too.