Can the Hard Brexiteers bring down May, without Corbyn’s help?

The parliamentary summer recess has begun, and as usual (in lieu of actual news) speculation about party leadership contests has begun.

With Corbyn still safe in his position as Labour leader, speculation has mostly focused on Theresa May. But as Brexiteer Tory rebels continue to grumble, what are the chances of a successful challenge to her leadership?

Firstly, it’s worth looking at some key numbers:

There are currently 316 Conservative MPs, of which 176 backed remain or 55.7% of the parliamentary party (not including the Speaker who is also a remainer).

Of the remaining MPs 138 backed leave and 3 have not disclosed their views.

To initiate a leadership contest 15% of the parliamentary party – meaning 48 MPs – must write to the chairman of the 1922 committee to initiate a no confidence vote in the leader. The number of letters received is a closely guarded secret, but speculation implies numbers were close to 48 during Boris Johnson and David Davis’ recent resignations from the cabinet – but still not reaching the threshold.

Assuming May decides to contest any no confidence vote (she has stated she will), then a majority vote of 159 will be required to defeat her – resulting in her resignation and a subsequent leadership contest she will be unable to stand in.

Tory leadership contests involve gradual elimination of nominated candidates by MPs until the final 2 candidates are voted on by the Tory membership.

With these numbers in mind, the likelihood of a successful challenge is slim.

The parliamentary Conservative party is bitterly divided among remainers and leavers, and assuming that support for the government will be ultimately divided along these lines (admittedly far from a perfect indicator) leavers remain 21 votes away from a majority. To add to these woes, recent ICM polling has suggested the party is better off electorally under May than any Brexiteer alternative.

The prospects of Tory leavers are diminished even further by internal divisions on their side verses a fairly united remainer faction of the party.

The issue here is that leavers have no unifying candidate to unite behind in any leadership contest. Boris Johnson is the obvious high-profile leaver, popular with the grassroots, but remains unpopular among many MPs who do not see him as a capable contender for the party leadership.

The other high-profile alternatives are Jacob Rees-Mogg, who will concern MPs due to his likely highly unpopular social views on abortion and gay marriage, and Michael Gove, who is a potential compromise candidate – but who may be reluctant to stand due to his disastrous 2016 attempt at the leadership.

Lacking an obvious candidate to unite the 138 leave-supporting MPs represents a serious risk in any Conservative leadership election. The process of gradual elimination means there must be enough parliamentary support for a single candidate to prevent them being tactically eliminated before the final two candidates, which is a serious risk facing divisive candidates like Johnson.

Brexiteers have begun to show their concern about these restrictive party rules, increasingly briefing the press in favour of rule changes, whilst former-leader and remainer William Hague has hit back, speaking out against any changes.

Remainers on the other hand are largely united by a mutual dislike of Johnson, and concerns about Mogg. Polling by ConservativeHome has consistently shown a preference among members for such controversial candidates – with Johnson currently the favourite among members.

Remainer MPs, therefore, have a vested interest in avoiding a contest due to the likelihood of a victory for any Brexiteer sneaking into the final two candidates.

There is some limited hope for those seeking to remove May though.

If enough MPs could be convinced by a candidate preferential to May with remainer-sympathies, then a majority vote could potentially be achieved to initiate a contest. The obvious candidate here is Sajid Javid – the current Home Secretary.

Javid is a ‘born-again’ leaver, who campaigned for remain in the referendum but has since attempted to redefine himself as a leave supporter – which a cynical commentator could perhaps attribute to his leadership ambitions rather than true belief in the cause.

The other high-profile cabinet remainers, such as Phillip Hammond, Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clarke have little personal following in the party and have little appeal beyond their appearance as relative moderates and a safe pair of hands.

Javid on the other hand is a relatively young, BAME candidate who has enjoyed a recent surge in popularity among the membership (currently second to Johnson). His ambiguous history on Europe also has the potential to bridge the gap between leavers and remainers (at least until he has to decide on actual policy positions), making him the only realistic hope remainers have of winning a final membership vote against a hard Brexiteer candidate.

However, it is difficult to see enough MPs enthusiastically embracing Javid to the extent of risking a leadership contest in the middle of difficult Brexit negotiations.

As things stand it seems May is safe in her position, at least until the end of the Brexit negotiations. Only a major political crisis could bring May down – although as she has already survived the resignations of her foreign secretary and Brexit secretary, it is becoming increasingly hard to imagine a political event that could dislodge her.

For the foreseeable future then, the summer leadership speculation should be dismissed as just that; speculation.


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