In the last year there have been endless calls for Theresa May to be given the boot, including from me. And I’ve yet to see a single commentator calling for her to stay. But what nobody at all has addressed is how she could be gotten rid of. Many people seem to be under the impression that if forty-eight letters go in from Conservative MPs, then a leadership contest is on, which the party members will ultimately decide. But that isn’t so. What happens first is the MPs have a vote of no confidence in May. (That’s assuming that May doesn’t resign once those forty-eight letters go in, but I’m assuming she won’t.)
The likelihood at the moment is that May would win that vote of no confidence, and would, as a result, stay in post. In times past a leader would be expected to resign if the confidence vote did not result in an overwhelming victory, but given the Brexit situation, and the way May has clung on to the leadership no matter how bad things have gotten for her, I think we can forget that.
But here’s the worst part, the bit that every commentator is ignoring, or is ignorant of. If May wins the confidence vote then she cannot be challenged again for a full year. This is not something I’ve ever seen mentioned in regard to Theresa May. It also not something that is mentioned in most guides to Tory leadership elections, because they are more concerned with what happens when a leader resigns or loses a confidence vote. But it is mentioned here (see p. 8), here and here. And the MPs will know this, even if the Twitterati don’t. A full twelve months grace, and there won’t be a thing the Brexiteers can do during that period to stop her doing what she wants.
This explains the inexplicable. Why are the Brexiteers not getting those forty-eight letters in when clearly they must have enough people on side? It’s because they know that a leadership challenge has to succeed in knocking May out first go, otherwise it will only have made things worse. A May that wins the vote will be re-strengthened, and will probably sack most or all of the Brexiteers from the Cabinet. It’s why they’re waiting until things get really bad, so bad that even a lot of the spineless, centrist Conservative MPs will have had enough of May. But it’s hard to see how the Brexit situation can get much worse than it is at the moment. So the fact that the Brexiteers haven’t acted by now doesn’t give one much confidence that they ever will, especially when David Davis keeps threatening to resign and then not doing so.
There is one thing that will make it more likely that May would lose a confidence vote, and that is if the Tories slip in the polls. A lot of Tory MPs are okay with May because she is keeping them ahead of Corbyn, and also they’re afraid of what could be unleashed if May is deposed (possibly even another early election). But if it looks like she won’t even be able to beat Corbyn then they would probably turn on her. However, while a downslide in the polls could definitely happen, it will only happen if the public realises what is going on with Brexit, and that could take a while, as the Tories are past masters at fudging their way out of trouble. In fact, it may not even happen at all, especially now that the Daily Mail is replacing outgoing editor Paul Dacre with an arch-Remainer. And the fear of Corbyn may keep May buoyant for as long as Labour remains hard-left. So we may be waiting for those forty-eight letters for quite some time yet. (It’s even possible that forty-eight supporters of May could call for a confidence motion in her before forty-eight Brexiteers do.)
Update: Some further thoughts on this issue: