- Conservative MPs from across the party talk to Business Insider about the growing crisis around Theresa May’s leadership.
- The prime minister has faced increasing internal and public criticism from her party over her handling of Brexit.
- Rumours are swirling in Westminster that she could soon face a challenge.
- However, many MPs believe an early challenge would be “suicide” for the party.
LONDON — Is Theresa May about to face a leadership challenge? That’s the question people are talking about in the corridors of the Houses of Parliament this week.
Until recently, the answer that question was a clear ‘no’. The accepted wisdom in Westminster has long been that although the prime minister may be, in the words of the former chancellor George Osborne, a “dead woman walking,” most Conservative MPs were content for her to remain on her feet.
However, that calculation now appears to be shifting, with rumours circulating that the prime minister could soon face a challenge to her leadership.
On Tuesday, May was forced to dismiss questions about her leadership, telling reporters that “I am not a quitter.”
So are the rumours about her leadership right, or should everybody just calm down? To answer that question Business Insider has spoken to Conservative MPs from across the party about the possibility of a challenge against the prime minister.
There is only one real mechanism for forcing a leadership challenge in the Conservative party. Under party rules, a vote of confidence is instigated in their leader if 48 Tory MPs lodge a letter with the chair of the 1922 Committee Graham Brady calling for one.
Rumours are swirling about exactly how many letters Brady, who represents backbench MPs, has received. One rumour, that he is just four short of the magic number, is currently doing the rounds in Westminster.
So is this number right?
Opinions vary among Conservative MPs we spoke to, with some suggesting the number was much smaller than others have suggested. However, one Brexit-backing Conservative MP who has grown disillusioned with May’s leadership, said there could soon be a “flood” of additional letters submitted against the PM.
“Its possible there will be a trickle [of more letters] or it’s possible there will be a flood,” the MP told Business Insider.
However, another MP, who still supports the prime minister, told BI that the rumours of her being on the brink of a challenge were almost certainly wrong.
“There’s definitely noises [against May] but the number of letters being bandied about is massively exaggerated. I can say that with a great deal of confidence.
“I’m close with people across the party and don’t think they’ve even got as many as 35. All the chatter in the newspapers is just not being reflected in the [House of Commons] tea room. It’s just not happening.”
They described talk of an immediate leadership challenge as “suicide.”
“If anyone tried this at this particular moment in time, when our leadership election process takes between 3 and 5 months and while we’re still negotiating Brexit in a critical position, they would crash and burn in a ball of flames. It would just be political suicide.”
“The Jacob Rees Moggs of this world will be disappointed”
Suicide or not, the talk of a challenge continues. And while until recently, most of the discontent about May’s leadership had come from Remain-supporting Conservative MPs unhappy about the approach May appeared to be taking towards Brexit, that shifted after the PM signalled a move towards a ‘softer’ form of Brexit.
In particular, the prime minister’s decision in December to sign up to “continued regulatory alignment” with the EU marked a real turning point in her standing with Tory Brexiters. For the first time discontent with her leadership is now emanating from both sides of the party.
One Brexit-backing Conservative MP told BI he had previously been very supportive of May remaining as leader. However, reports at the weekend that the prime minister’s chief European advisor Oliver Robbins has indicated the prime minister is prepared to stay in the customs union after Brexit, along with the Chancellor’s comments last week that there would only be “very modest” changes to the UK’s relationship with the EU after Brexit, changed his mind.
“There are rumours going around that Oliver Robbins has signed us up to staying in the customs union after the transition,” the MP told BI.
“I don’t know whether this is coming from Hammond or whether she’s colluding with [the civil service], but the only thing that will save her now is if she makes clear that there will be no more backsliding.”
There is little doubt that Brexiters are stepping up their challenge to May. Earlier this week, Tory rising star Johnny Mercer warned the prime minister that the “window is closing” for her to show leadership.
The only thing that will save her now is if she makes clear that there will be no more backsliding.”
However, one centrist Tory MP told BI that the party’s “arch Brexiters” would just have to learn to live with being “disappointed” by the form of Brexit May was set to adopt.
“The arch Brexiters who are uncomfortable with any kind of implementation period and are concerned that they’re not going to get Brexit exactly 100% as they wanted in their head are now facing the reality that it’s probably not going to happen that way and they are disappointed.
“You’ve got the Jacob Rees Moggs of the world saying they’re not happy. Well, they’re never going to be happy no matter who’s prime minister. It doesn’t matter.
“They’ve got their fundamental views about how they want Brexit and it’s completely unrealistic and they’re going to be disappointed no matter what.”
They added: “I have to say I am surprised by the behaviour of some colleagues about that, because Jesus Christ this is politics. What were they expecting?”
An accidental leadership contest
Whatever the actual number of resignation letters in place, few doubt that unrest has grown in the party over recent months. One supporter of May told BI that the Brexit process was driving the new sense of crisis around her.
“There is an anxiety among my colleagues about what will happen now that the December [Brexit divorce] agreement has been made and we’re moving on to the next stage when we finalise that into something legally binding. That’s where the concern has come.”
The MP told BI that much of the briefing about a possible leadership challenge was an attempt by both sides of the Brexit divide in the party to put pressure on May ahead of making that agreement. However, they worried that such “lobbying” could soon get out of hand.
“A lot of this is about laying the groundwork [for the agreement] and that is perfectly legitimate,” they said.
“If I’m honest that’s probably how this all started, but I do worry now that this could be allowed to get out of control.”
Others who back May also worry about an accidental contest.
“I don’t think there’s any appetite in the party to consciously go down the leadership route right now. I mean genuinely on either side there really isn’t. So if it happens it would be completely by accident.”
If it happens it would be completely by accident.”
Another MP, who backs May’s continued leadership, told BI that while the “fundamentals” were still in May’s favour it was possible that an unanticipated event could still trigger a challenge.
“Every time an event comes along, whether it’s Worboys, or Davos or whatever it might be, there are clearly those in the party who are agitating to make it into some sort of seismic shift in her leadership. I think the fundamentals are still in her favour but it’s certainly possible that something will come along to change that.”
“People are asking if I will support Jacob Rees-Mogg”
If such an event were to come along and Graham Brady did receive his 48th letter, then what would happen next? Under party rules, Brady would need to inform Downing Street and a vote of no confidence in May’s leadership would then be held within days.
“If that were to happen, then she would win [the vote] in a landslide,” one supporter of May told BI.
However, if a contest were triggered then few doubt there would be more than one challenger against her.
So who would they be?
“We all know who the obvious candidates are,” the MP added.
“People are asking me if I will support Jacob Rees-Mogg, or whoever, but this is all just froth. I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
However, even those supporting May remaining in place for now, believe her shelf-life is limited.
“I genuinely believe that this prime minister will end up leaving at a time of her choosing but I’m just as confident that it will still be well before 2022,” one supporter said.
“It certainly won’t be Boris”
One of the main factors that has kept May in place has been the lack of a popular successor that could unite the party. While in the past the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was talked up as a successor, dissatisfaction with the current front-runners in the race to succeed May is widespread.
“Our enthusiasm for those who have been leading the party is waning,” one MP who joined the Commons in 2015 told BI.
“They messed up Brexit, they messed up the general election. I mean really? How many chances do you want?”
The behaviour of the Cabinet in recent weeks is a particularly sore point with backbenchers.
“Bloody hell these people need to get over themselves,” the MP said.
“There’s very little tolerance for that behaviour. Those of us who are backbenchers are being pretty good team players and then you see others not doing so. It is infuriating.”
The recent behaviour of the foreign secretary has particularly riled.
“When an election comes it’s certainly not going to be Boris,” the MP told BI.
“I have no idea who would be the likely candidates. All I know is that I would like a leader.”
“He had his opportunity and he bottled it. And I’m actually quite a fan of Boris and in different circumstances, he would have been a fantastic good time prime minister, but the good times aren’t here and they’re not going to come for the next few years.”
There is a widespread feeling among Tory MPs that Johnson has failed to do enough to win over his colleagues.
“Being present and visible and friendly to colleagues in the tearoom and at drinks and making yourself open and visible at tearoom surgeries, really endears you to colleagues,” the MP told BI.
“Some of those who are supposedly front-runners make very little effort to endear themselves to 2015 and 2017 colleagues and that gets noticed.”
However, the lack of credible candidates may not be enough to discourage May’s most ardent critics.
As one hardline Brexit-supporting critic of May told BI: “I have no idea who would be the likely candidates. All I know is that I would like a leader.”
Is a challenge coming?
Although the Conservative party is clearly divided, the one point of unity among MPs is the belief that May will no longer be prime minister at the point of the next general election.
“Whoever is the Brexit prime minister will not be leader at the next general election.”
One of the main factors preventing an imminent challenge against May is the belief that any PM would be struggling in her position with Brexit. As one MP puts it: “Whoever is PM at Brexit time, and I do believe it will be Theresa May, they are unlikely to be the person who leads us into the next general election.
“So if we change now I can pretty much guarantee it won’t just be one leader who has gone because of Brexit, it won’t be two, it will be three, because it will be an interim leader and the person afterwards as well. So whoever is the Brexit prime minister will be blamed for Brexit on both sides and will not be leader at the next general election.”
For this reason, the chances of an immediate and successful challenge against May therefore still seem low. Even if the number of letters lodged with May did reach 48, the PM would still likely win any vote that followed.
However, these are febrile political times and talk of more MPs planning to write to Graham Brady continue to swirl in the corridors at Westminster. For this reason, the possibility of the party stumbling into an accidental vote of confidence in their leader cannot be ruled out.