When is a Party not a Party?…and how should The Party respond?

Paula Keaveney

“The piglet has wriggled free many times before; but he is cornered in a cul-de-sac and the butchers are whetting their knives.”

If you want to get a sense of mood among Conservatives, the Conservative Home website – the source of this porcine image – is the place to go. 

Johnson’s butchers are encouraged by media outcry and public disgust; and that media outcry doesn’t appear to be peak volume – yet!

When the first Downing Street party stories appeared in the press it was clear that there would be other examples.  Whether the media has deliberately held some back (which incidentally does happen), or whether people are realising that they too have a story, the drum beat of one party after another is dangerous. The hang-over headache can only throb more strongly.

For a Conservative Prime Minister, the moment of danger is when s/he not only loses the support of MPs but that those MPs actually do something about it.  A vote of confidence in an incumbent leader is triggered when a proportion of MPs calls for one by writing to the Chair of the 1922 committee – effectively a shop steward for members of the Parliamentary party. 

In a confidence – or properly a no confidence – vote, all Conservatives in the Commons who have the party whip get a ballot.  The rules, although in the Conservative Party the 1922 committee can actually change the rules, say that a leader who wins the vote cannot be challenged again for a year.  We have a recent example of this in the vote on Theresa May.  If a leader loses the vote, we are in leadership election territory.

MPs can lose confidence for a number of reasons; but the overriding cause is a feeling that the leader is going to lose an election.  The evidence for this is gleaned from opinion polls, media coverage, feedback from constituents and by election results.  Feeling is often particularly strong on a Monday – i.e., today – when MPs return to Westminster after a constituency-based ear bashing.

But isn’t Johnson safe?  After all a parade of Cabinet ministers have made statements supporting him after his Prime Ministers Question time appearance and words of apology.  Some of these statements appear rather equivocal however and those preparing an attack may well prefer to keep their intentions under wraps for a short time.

Perhaps Johnson’s main advantage is the lack of consensus around a replacement.  Party managers will be keen at this stage to avoid a long, drawn-out contest. It’s possible, although not likely, that potential contestants could come to an arrangement (like the Blair/Brown Granita deal).  This need to narrow the field has caused some influential Conservative voices to find other ways forward.  Paul Goodman, writing on Conservative Home, has some suggestions.

What those of us who follow these political dramas are looking out for now is whether or not MPs who are not “usual suspects” put their head over the parapet and make their call for a confidence vote known.  Perhaps we’ll know today!

Paula Keaveney is Senior Lecturer Politics at Edge Hill University and Convenor Political Studies Association Political Marketing Group.

Photo by Hybrid on Unsplash

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