Sir Graham Brady: The inside story of the no confidence vote

Posted On: 
17th December 2018

The vote of confidence in Theresa May was the culmination of weeks of speculation about the Prime Minister’s leadership. Sir Graham Brady was at the heart of events as chairman of the 1922 Committee. He recounts in detail the moment the notorious 48 letter threshold was reached, his subsequent contact with Downing Street and the reasoning behind the expeditious nature of the contest

Sir Graham Brady reading out the result of the no confidence vote in Theresa May
PA Images

On Tuesday morning I bumped into a colleague in the Library corridor. “I’m really sorry Graham, I didn’t want to do this… but I just can’t leave it any longer.” A House of Commons envelope travelled from his inside jacket pocket to mine in a matter of seconds. Unseen, the trigger had been pulled.

The famous ‘48th letter’ needed to cross the threshold to a vote of confidence in the leader of the Conservative party had been received by the chairman of the 1922 Committee.

Lots of people have congratulated me on my poker face recently but never had it been more important that I remain impassive: any sign that this was a critical moment would have changed the whole dynamic of the process, so I bade the colleague farewell and walked quickly back to my office in Portcullis House. Time for a final count and to plan the next steps.

The door had barely closed when there was a knock on it…. Standing there was a Conservative MP who had submitted a letter to me a couple of weeks before. “The timing is just bloody awful, I’d like to withdraw my letter,” they said. Back to 47.

It was too early for a large whisky – or even a small one – so I just sat down and shook my head in disbelief. This was the second time in a month that the total had stood one below the critical figure.

On the earlier occasion, the tide had ebbed rapidly down the beach. 47…46…45…44. Would this happen again? No, in the afternoon the threshold was crossed again. This time it was going to be for real.

It may be that the immediate cause was the decision to defer the vote on the EU Withdrawal Agreement, but I am sure that going ahead and losing the vote by a massive margin would have had exactly the same effect.

The rules set out in the party’s constitution are clear. If at least 15% of the parliamentary party write to me asking for a vote of confidence, I am required to inform the leader, consult with her and then arrange a ballot as soon as is reasonable in the circumstances.

All this was complicated by the fact that the Prime Minister was on a whirlwind tour of Brussels, The Hague and Berlin: returning for PMQs on Wednesday, before leaving the country again to attend the EU Council meeting on Thursday. I contacted Downing Street to ask for a meeting.

By early evening the Lobby was buzzing with rumours and my mobile was buzzing with calls seeking confirmation that I had asked to see the Prime Minister. I have done everything possible to ensure that this process was handled properly, I am confident that my office doesn’t leak. But someone did, could it have been someone within the government machine who didn’t have the Prime Minister’s best interests at heart?

With the media reporting that a confidence vote was expected, it would have been pointless trying to stonewall indefinitely. The Prime Minister and I spoke on the phone that evening. Would she ask me to hold off for a few days until the EU Council had ended? If she had, would that have fulfilled the expectation in the rules that the process should be concluded as swiftly as reasonably possible?

In the event, she was keen to get on with it and clear the air. I knew that the Rolls-Royce that is the 1922 Committee could arrange this process and conclude it within 24 hours, so the wheels were set in motion. Notice of the ballot arrangements would go out to the media at 0730 so that the markets (financial and political) would have the news as they opened. Proxy votes could be arranged up until 1600, the PM would have an opportunity to address colleagues at the scheduled meeting of the ’22 at 1700 and the ballot would be held between 1800 and 2000. The result would be announced to colleagues in Committee Room 14 at 2100. Simultaneously, the world’s media would get the news via a pool camera that had been set up while I and my two Vice-Chairmen (Cheryl Gillan and Charles Walker) counted the votes in a nearby committee room.

The officers of the 1922 Committee assembled to announce the result in the cathedral-like setting of room 14. I had promised the result at exactly nine o’clock and I was keen to stick to that. As we waited for the last minute to tick away, one wag said loudly, ‘let us pray.’ I then thanked the team, and announced the result, followed by the figures: 200 for, 117 against.  We would not be holding a Christmas leadership election after all.

Sir Graham Brady is Conservative MP for Altrincham and Sale West, chairman of the 1922 Committee and editor of The House magazine