Today has been one of the most tumultuous days for the Government since it triggered Article 50 and began the process of leaving the European Union.
At the time of writing, seven Ministers have tendered their resignations in protest at the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. These include Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and Work & Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, but also those not known for having particularly strong Eurosceptic leanings, such as Shailesh Vara and Rehman Chishti.
The Democratic Unionist Party, upon whom the Government relies to pass its legislation, is opposed to the backstop provision for Northern Ireland, which breaches their red line about the province not being treated differently to the rest of the UK. The Scottish Conservatives have made their support conditional on assurances about the fishing industry after Brexit.
The Prime Minister has found little solace on the other side of the Brexit divide. The Labour Party has come out against the deal, arguing that it does not do enough to retain the benefits of EU membership. The Scottish National Party have said they will vote against it. A handful of Tory rebels oppose the agreement from a ‘Remain’ perspective. Looking at the arithmetic, it is difficult to see how it might pass the House of Commons.
A more immediate worry for the Prime Minister will be securing her position in the run up to the parliamentary vote on the agreement. There may be further resignations after MPs take the mood of their constituents over the weekend. The European Reform Group, who have thus far restrained from calling for Theresa May to be replaced, are now openly encouraging their colleagues to submit letters of no confidence and trigger a leadership contest. There are rumours about whether Sir Graham Brady has enough letters to trigger a contest, the number is perilously close.
Should 48 MPs submit letters of no confidence to the 1922 Committee, this will trigger a process which could see the Prime Minister removed and the country enter unchartered territory with regards to the Brexit negotiations.
The timeline and process for changing the leader of the Conservative Party is outlined below:
- Should enough letters of no confidence be submitted, then a simple ballot in which MPs state whether they are “for” or “against” Mrs May remaining in position will be held.
- Under the rules, this vote must take place “as soon as possible”, although the precise timing is at the discretion of the 1922 Committee. The last time this procedure was followed, when Iain Duncan Smith was removed as leader in 2003, the vote was held the day after the threshold was reached.
- If the Prime Minister secures the support of 50% plus one of her parliamentary party, she continues in office and cannot be challenged for a further twelve months. In this scenario, she could claim a strong mandate going into the parliamentary vote on the Withdrawal Agreement.
- Should the Prime Minister fail to win majority support, this will trigger a leadership election. If there is only one candidate – a scenario which arose in 2003 when the parliamentary party united around Michael Howard as Iain Duncan Smith’s replacement – then that person will become party leader immediately, and Prime Minister following an audience with the Queen.
- If there is more than one candidate, then the parliamentary party will hold a series of ballots, one on each Tuesday and Thursday, in which MPs vote for their preferred candidate. At each stage of voting, the bottom placed candidate is removed until only two remain. The precise timetable of the parliamentary ballot is decided by the 1922 Committee.
- Once the list has been narrowed down to two candidates, the party membership as a whole is given the final choice. The timing for this process is not set in stone, and is determined by the board of the voluntary party. In 2016, the Committee agreed a nine week election campaign. However, in 2005, when David Cameron became leader, the run-off took place over a shorter time period of six weeks.
- Theresa May will remain in post as party leader and Prime Minister while the contest is underway, until the point at which the winner is announced.
- Given the critical stage of the Brexit negotiations, it is likely the Committee would agree an expedited process to ensure the new Prime Minister was in place quickly to secure the approval of, or seek amendment to, the Withdrawal Agreement.
- Alternatively, they may opt to delay the race until after any parliamentary vote on the Withdrawal Agreement or even the conclusion of the Brexit process – although such an approach would be seen as incendiary by the Prime Minister’s detractors and difficult to justify.