The Conservative Party will hold a no-confidence vote on the leadership of Boris Johnson tonight. Here’s what you need to know.

First published: June 2022.

It’s on. After weeks of speculation during the “partygate” scandal, the required number of Conservative MPs have called for a “no-confidence” vote on Boris Johnson’s leadership. The vote has been triggered after 54 (or possibly more) MPs submitted letters to Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the influential 1922 committee, saying they no longer believe Johnson is the right person to lead the party.

The contest will be a straightforward yes or no vote. To win the vote, Johnson needs a simple majority of the ballots to be returned in his favour. There are currently 359 Conservative MP so, if every Conservative MP takes part, Johnson will need 180 votes to win the ballot. Should Johnson achieve this, the rules as they currently stand say that Conservative MPs cannot challenge again for another 12 months.

Including Johnson, four of the five previous Conservative prime ministers have been publicly challenged over their position as party leader, going back to Edward Heath in 1974, as was Iain Duncan Smith as leader of the opposition in 2003.

Their example tells us that winning the vote may not be enough to secure Johnson’s position. Theresa May survived a vote of no confidence in January 2019, both Thatcher and Major faced leadership challenges (although under different rules and after significantly longer in office than either Johnson or May). Remarkably, all three won their respective ballots but both Thatcher and May resigned shortly afterwards and Major went on to lose the 1997 general election by a landslide.

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Johnson’s team will hope to use a victory to “draw a line” under partygate and other scandals but this may be difficult to achieve in a party that is publicly as divided as the Conservatives currently are.

Any victory will inevitably be compared to May’s in December 2018. May won her vote by 200 votes (63%) to 117. In order to match this percentage, Johnson would need to amass a total of 227 MPs voting to support his leadership. Of the 359 votes, approximately 100 or so are “payroll votes” – that is, MPs who owe their position to the government. They would normally be expected to vote with the government or resign their posts under notions of collective responsibility.

If Johnson loses, the Conservative Party will begin the process of electing a new leader. By virtue of losing the vote, Johnson would be prohibited from standing in the resulting leadership election.

Any contest will take the same format as the last leadership contest in 2019. MPs will collectively choose two candidates that will go forward to a ballot of the members. Johnson would remain as prime minister until such a time as a new leader is elected (as both Cameron and May did) or would be expected to appoint a temporary leader.

Rishi Sunak and Nadhim Zahawi are two possible leadership contenders. | Flickr/Number 10

Possible leadership contenders

The frontrunners in such a leadership bid are usually senior figures – either members of the government, or the chairs of committees or MPs have held such positions previously. Prior to becoming prime minister, May had been home secretary, while Major was chancellor.

Rishi Sunak, who currently holds that post, was previously seen a forerunner to replace Johnson. But the cost of living crisis, and a fine for attending the same event that brought Johnson his fixed penalty notice, has seen his personal ratings plummet.

Other prominent cabinet members who may be tempted to throw their hats into the ring include the foreign secretary Liz Truss, who has been loyal to Johnson but is expected to stand should a vacancy arise. Penny Mordaunt, the minister of state at the Department for International Trade is seen as a possible unifying figure, something the party may well value. Other senior figures could include defence secretary Ben Wallace, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi or health secretary Sajid Javid.

Electing someone from outside the current cabinet may help the party to move on with a narrative of change. One prominent Johnson critic is the chair of the foreign affairs committee, Tom Tugendhat. He is thus far the only figure to publicly state he will run if a vacancy emerges. Other potential contenders include the former health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who came second in the members ballot behind Johnson in 2019.

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Party leader, not prime minister

But it’s important to remember that Conservative MPs are voting on the party leader, not prime minister. Unlike party leaders, prime ministers can only be removed by the electorate (in a general election) or by parliament (through a vote of no confidence), which would involve MPs of all parties, not just Conservative ones.

Johnson may seek to try and use this distinction to his advantage, either through seeking to continue to push through with his legislative agenda (though he would require the support of a majority of MPs to do this – something that is not guaranteed).

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He could also opt to call a general election, but this would risk splitting the Conservative Party, and there is no guarantee that Johnson would be able to use the party machine to campaign once he has been voted out as leader. It would also be highly risky for Johnson personally, given that recent polling data suggests that he could lose his own seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

It would further be unclear whether such an election would command the support of majority in the Commons. This would make any decision contested. While opposition parties may be willing to have a snap election, the Conservatives still have a working parliamentary majority of 75.

If calling an election clearly lacked Commons support it could generate a constitutional crisis as it would challenge the relationship between the executive and legislature, the latter of which is seen as sovereign. But stranger things have happened in British politics recently.

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Dr Christopher Kirkland, Lecturer in Politics, York St John University. Taught on a number of courses at different institutions, covering British politics, comparative politics and political economy.

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