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By Bishop of Leeds
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How the process for a confidence vote in the Conservative leader works

4 min read

Following the publication of Sue Gray’s final report, Sir Graham Brady received a steady stream of letters calling for a confidence vote in Boris Johnson. He has now announced that the threshold has been reached. What does that mean – and what happens next?

Brady is chair of the powerful 1922 Committee comprising all backbench Conservative MPs. “The 22”, as the Committee is known, oversees confidence votes and leadership elections. Once 15 per cent of Tory MPs – which currently equates to 54 – write to the chair requesting a vote, one is held. And unlike in the Labour Party, votes of no confidence among Conservative MPs are binding.

Once the letters threshold is reached, the chairman of the 22 is expected to inform the leader of the Conservative Party. A conversation then takes places between the two and a timetable for a vote is agreed upon.

When the exercise was run in 2018, after the required number of letters expressing no confidence in Theresa May were sent, Brady spoke to the Prime Minister on the Tuesday evening, once she had returned from a trip abroad. She asked how quickly the vote could be arranged, the chair replied that the very next evening would be possible, and she agreed that it should occur then.

Notice was given to journalists at 7.30am on Wednesday and MPs cast their ballots between 6pm and 8pm. Votes were counted by Brady, alongside his two vice-chairs Cheryl Gillan and Charles Walker. At 9pm, the result was announced in Committee Room 14 in Parliament. Events usually unfold very rapidly.

Though there is no hard rule, the presumption is that the ballot, in which all Tory MPs can participate, is held sooner rather than later. There is no specific time limit set for any part of the process, but the principle of speed is key. It comes as little surprise that the vote of confidence in Johnson has been set for between 6pm and 8pm, on the same day of Brady's announcement.

The letters received by Brady come in a variety of forms: some write theirs by hand; others send the chair a text notifying that theirs is arriving by email shortly. The only expectation placed on Tory MPs is that their submission should be verifiable, ensuring that the letter is clearly from the individual concerned.

There is a widespread misconception that the chair does a ring round of MPs who have submitted letters once the threshold is met. This is not true, and Brady has never done it – such an activity would breach the confidentiality that is integral to the process. As a result, the theory that false letters are submitted by supporters of the leader, allowing them to withdraw at the opportune moment and avoid a vote, is unworkable.

Similarly, Brady does not publish a running total, as this could influence events, with MPs potentially being put off by the idea they could be the person to pull the trigger or others possibly being encouraged to submit their letters at a particular time.

One may wish to find a document setting out all these principles. However, there is no codified rulebook for the 1922 Committee. The specific procedure for confidence votes is written down, though not published – it is in Brady’s sole possession.

There is a considerable amount of flexibility in the rules. They can also be changed at any time by a straightforward vote among the members of the 1922 executive.

For example, the compulsory 12-month grace period between confidence votes was nearly reduced to six months during the May era. Executive members voted on whether to change the rule, with the caveat that the ballots would not be counted unless May refused to name a date for her departure. Brady was sent to persuade the Prime Minister to do just that, which she did – and the rule went unchanged.

This adaptability is thought by Conservative MPs to best serve the interests of their party. Rather than get hung up on detailed rules, the 1922 Committee can respond appropriately to unexpected events. If a political situation worsens for a leader shortly after they have won a confidence vote, for instance, the executive would not wait a year but instead find a way of reflecting the overall will of the parliamentary party by arranging another vote.

Once 54 (or more) letters asking for a vote of confidence in Boris Johnson were sent in, the timing of the conversation with the Prime Minister and the subsequent announcement of the vote was up to the 1922 Committee chair. Brady was expected to make swift arrangements for the ballot – and so he did.

What happens if the Prime Minister survives the vote? The flexibility of the 1922 Committee means winning well is important: the 12-month pause between parliamentary confidence votes can always be changed.

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