Lesson for Boris Johnson: Leadership challenges rarely end well

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When Theresa May emerged from a Conservative party leadership challenge in December 2018, the then UK prime minister declared she was on a “renewed mission”. Yet just six months later she was forced to stand down, paving the way for her successor, Boris Johnson.

May won the challenge with the support of 63 per cent of Tory MPs, primarily from the centre and left of the party. But it was the pro-Brexit wing, with Johnson waiting in the shadows as a potential prime minister, who brought about her downfall.

On Monday, Johnson’s supporters were acutely aware that a vote on the prime minister’s leadership would reshape his relationship with the Conservative parliamentary party and risked undermining his premiership, even if a majority of Tory MPs voted for him.

May’s shortlived victory in 2018 confirmed a precedent from previous Conservative leadership contests: incumbent Tory prime ministers and leaders struggle to regain their standing once MPs vote against them in significant numbers.

Since the party introduced formal leadership contests in 1965, the Tories have elected nine leaders. Four incumbents have been subsequently challenged: Ted Heath in 1975, Margaret Thatcher in 1989 and 1990, Iain Duncan Smith in 2003 and May in 2018.

Two of these leaders, Heath and Duncan Smith, were ousted immediately after they lost a private ballot of MPs. In both of contests, the party had several potential successors waiting.

Ted Heath was ousted immediately after losing a private ballot of MPs in 1975 © Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Thatcher and May, the other two sitting Tory prime ministers challenged by the parliamentary party, were out of office within a year of winning the support of their MPs.

In 1995, the then prime minister John Major put himself forward in a “put up or shut up” leadership election following years of speculation among Tory MPs about his future.

Running against John Redwood, then a Eurosceptic Wales secretary, Major was victorious, winning the support of two-thirds of Tory MPs. Two years later, however, he lost the general election to Tony Blair’s Labour party in a landslide.

Thatcher’s long downfall began in December 1989 when she was challenged by Sir Anthony Meyer, a backbench Tory MP, who ran to test support after growing criticism of her leadership style, rather than in a bid to become leader himself. Thatcher won the ballot with 91 per cent of the vote, but 60 MPs voted for Meyer or abstained.

Criticism of Thatcher’s leadership style and policies continued and she was challenged again in November 1990 by the former defence secretary Michael Heseltine. In the first round of the contest, Thatcher won 55 per cent of the votes cast compared to 41 per cent for Heseltine.

Thatcher was four votes short of the margin needed to avoid a second round and pledged to continue, vowing: “I fight on, I fight on to win”. But the day after the vote she was visited by her most senior supporters who told her she would lose a second ballot. She reluctantly decided to bow out.

Margaret Thatcher leaves Downing Street for the last time after being told she would lose a second ballot © Mirrorpix/Alamy

In 1998 the leadership rules changed. For Johnson to be challenged, 15 per cent of the parliamentary party had to submit letters of no-confidence to the head of the 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady. To remain party leader and prime minister, Johnson had to secure the votes of more than 50 per cent of the party’s 180 MPs.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and a historian of the Tory party, said the downfall of Thatcher was the most analogous to Johnson’s situation.

“Margaret Thatcher, like Boris, was seen as an election winner but once her MPs became convinced she’d passed her ‘use-by’ date, that counted for very little,” he said, noting that opposition to her leadership was mostly tied to the “hated” poll tax.

Bale added: “Unlike her, Johnson is willing to U-turn on almost anything, so policy is not the driving factor today. There was an extent to which she herself and her governance style were problems but with Johnson, it is personal — rather than any policy — that is by far the biggest factor.”

A constant in all Tory leadership contests, however, is that they fail to resolve political or policy differences within the party.

“Boris Johnson winning Monday’s vote would be unlikely to solve his, the party’s or the country’s problems,” said Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website and a former MP. “There are difficult by-elections to come, allegations pending and Commons’ committee investigation pending in the autumn,” he said,

Goodman added that the vote would highlight faultlines in the parliamentary party and the wider Tory membership. “It is disputed whether there is a Johnson loyalist base in the Commons, but there certainly is in the country. They will cause problems for any successor if a stab in the back myth ever arises.”

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