Boris Johnson’s premiership has entered the danger zone after rebel Conservative MPs secured a no-confidence vote in his leadership.
Many MPs felt compelled to act after the publication of senior civil servant Sue Gray’s report into the partygate scandal, which blamed the senior leadership at Downing Street for a series of gatherings during Covid restrictions.
Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs which oversees a no-confidence vote, announced the ballot would be held on Monday evening.
How does the no-confidence vote work?
The timing of the vote was fixed in bilateral negotiations between Brady and Johnson’s camp — although the 1922 executive has the final word.
Voting will begin at 6pm on Monday evening and conclude at 8pm, with the result being announced at around 9pm.
All 359 Tory MPs, including Johnson, will vote in secret on a simple yes/no basis on whether they have confidence in the leader.
If more than 50 per cent, 180 MPs, support Johnson then he can stay as party leader and prime minister. If not, then he is no longer leader and cannot stand in the ensuing leadership contest.
When a no-confidence vote was held in December 2018 on Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor, she won by a margin of 200 votes to 117.
What does it mean if Johnson wins?
He is theoretically safe in his job, and cannot be challenged again in another confidence vote for 12 months. However, if he wins by only a narrow margin Johnson might regard his premiership as untenable and resign.
One added complication is that the 1922 executive reserves the right to change the rules and thus shorten the interval between confidence votes. That would be feasible if Johnson wins tonight’s vote but then the political situation worsens, from a Conservative perspective, in the coming months.
Johnson faces a tricky period as prime minister as he juggles the growing cost of living crisis and the western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His party also faces two difficult by-elections on June 23, in Tiverton and Honiton, and Wakefield. The polls suggest the Tories could well lose both.
The prime minister and his entourage will hope that the palpable public rage over parties at Number 10 will start to fade with time. On Monday morning a Downing Street spokesperson described the vote as “a chance to end months of speculation and allow the government to draw a line and move on”.
What happens if Johnson loses the vote?
Johnson’s defeat in a no-confidence vote would precipitate a Tory leadership contest that involves several stages.
The first requires leadership hopefuls to put their names forward. There are then two rounds of voting to eliminate the contenders who fail to reach a certain threshold of support.
There are then ballots in which the candidate who comes last is eliminated until there are just two left.
The final stage is a ballot of the party membership to decide which of the two final candidates they prefer. The winner becomes party leader.
May resigned on May 24 2019 after failing to get her version of Brexit through parliament. In the subsequent leadership race 10 candidates stepped forward, including Rory Stewart, Matt Hancock and Andrea Leadsom.
The closing stages saw the elimination of Sajid Javid and Michael Gove before Johnson beat Jeremy Hunt by 92,153 to 46,656 votes in the ballot of the membership.
Would there have to be a general election if there is a new Tory leader and PM?
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Brexit opportunities minister, courted controversy earlier this year when he suggested that “a change of leader requires a general election” because this particular prime minister had a president-style mandate from the people.
That was a far-from-subtle hint aimed at new Tory MPs in constituencies with small majorities that bringing down Johnson could lead to an election in which they risked losing their seats.
But the claim is not rooted in reality. The replacement of the sitting prime minister with a new Conservative leader would not trigger an election. May and Sir John Major both assumed office in the middle of a parliament and did not hold immediate elections.
The new leader would have until December 2024, five years after the country last went to the polls, to hold the next general election.