Political Insider: The Boris Johnson No-Confidence Vote

With the impact of ‘Party-Gate’ and increasingly bad news in the polls, the magic number – 54 – Conservative MPs requesting a Vote of No Confidence in Boris Johnson has been reached.  It is widely believed that this actually happened last week with many MPs post-dating their letters in order to ensure a trouble-free Platinum Jubilee weekend.  Even as Chairman of the 1922 Conservative Backbench Committee, Sir Graham Brady, announced the confidence vote would be held this evening, rumours abounded that the number of letters received had already topped 67.

The outcome from this point could lead to the removal of Boris Johnson as Leader of the Conservative & Unionist Party, and his consequent resignation as Prime Minister.

This note sets out how that process works and what may be in store for the Conservative Party, and the Country, in the coming few days and weeks.

Vote of No Confidence

Having received the required letters from at least 15% of Conservative MPs expressing no confidence in Boris Johnson, Sir Graham Brady informed the Prime Minister privately over the weekend and agreed with him the timing of the no confidence procedure.

The vote will take place this evening between 6pm and 8pm.  Some consider this haste will work in the PMs favour as absentee voting is rare and many MPs unaware of the developments of the weekend may be unable to get back to London in time.  Nonetheless it is within the current rules that the 1922 Committee works to.

All 359 Conservative MPs will be eligible to take part in the no confidence vote.

A simple majority (180 votes) is required for the no confidence motion to succeed.

If the vote passes, Johnson will announce the timing of his resignation as Prime Minister.

If he resigns as Prime Minister with immediate effect, he will advise The Queen who she should request become a ‘caretaker’ Prime Minister until a new Conservative Leader is chosen.  Any interim PM would be expected to have ruled themselves out from running as part of the agreement. The current Deputy Prime Minister is Dominic Raab MP.

If the no-confidence vote falls, Johnson remains in post.  Under the current rules no further confidence vote can be triggered for another year … unless the rules are subject to further speedy revisions as has already been publicly contemplated.

However winning this no confidence vote does not make the PM immune from further events – which could come as early as the outcomes of the two Conservative-held by-elections in Wakefield and in Tiverton & Honiton on June 23rd.

What to Look out for Tonight

As we write, close to 100 Conservative MPs have publicly endorsed the PM while 45 Conservative MPs have publicly declared No Confidence, meaning we’re more than a quarter of the way to a No Confidence outcome.

However, there are between 160-170 MPs are already on the Government ‘payroll-vote’ as either frontbench or junior Ministers. If they remain loyal Johnson has the bulk of the 180 votes needed pretty much in the bag. In many respects this makes tonight’s vote principally an opportunity to measure the scale of Conservative discontent with the PM. So it will be important to place tonight’s expression of confidence into perspective. If:

121 Conservative MPs vote against Boris Johnson, he will have matched the percentage result attained by John Major when he survived a VONC in 1995. Major was eviscerated by Blair at the next election, two years later.

133 Conservative MPs vote against Boris Johnson, he will have achieved a worse result than that achieved by Theresa May when she survived a VONC in 2018. She resigned six months later.

147 Conservative MPs vote against Boris Johnson, he will have achieved a worse result than that achieved by Margaret Thatcher when she survived a VONC in 1990. She resigned eight days later.

While Johnson’s survival is highly likely this evening – and No10 are already briefing ‘a win is a win’ – history shows that votes of no confidence tend to mark the beginning of the end of successful party leaderships and, where victorious leaders are not replaced (as with Major and indeed Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn), electoral defeats tend to loom large.

Conservative Party Leadership Election Process

The rules and format of a Conservative leadership contest are set jointly by the executive of the 1922 Committee of Conservative Backbench MPs and the Conservative Party Board.

Conservative MPs vote in a series of ballots, usually held on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Voting rounds take place until only two candidates are left.

Conservative Party members then get a choice between the remaining two contenders. This process can be measured in either several weeks (with hustings up and down the country) or simply days (as we saw with Andrea Leadsom’s last minute withdrawal in 2016).

When an unexpectedly large number of candidates threw their hat into the ring in 2019 the 1922 Committee responded by requiring nomination from at least 8 MPs in order to proceed to the first round of MP voting.

In order to further weed out the runners, there were also voting thresholds at the first stage (17 votes) and the second stage (13 votes). Candidate failing these thresholds were removed from the next stage.

Overall, from the point of Theresa May’s resignation announcement, the 2019 Conservative Leadership contest took two months to conclude, running from May 24th to July 24th.