Much speculation has surrounded Ed Miliband’s position as Labour leader since word of a campaign against him has spread. But less attention has been focused on David Cameron’s position as Conservative leader and prime minister.
He might seem to be under less pressure than his rival but there are grumbles on the backbenches. And it is far easier to oust a leader from the Conservative party than from Labour.
There is a long way to go before Cameron’s position could be considered to be really under threat. The economy is improving, the party is level with Labour in the opinion polls, and the prime minister enjoys a significant advantage over Miliband on net approval ratings. But Conservative rules on removing sitting leaders provide any critics with a clear and achievable method of evicting him.
Cameron is facing opposition from members of his own party, particularly when it comes to Europe. And the Rochester and Strood by-election has been another blow. Talk has turned to more potential defections now that former Tory Mark Reckless has been returned to parliament as a UKIP MP.
More trouble is brewing for the prime minister over the pledge he made during the Scottish independence referendum to maintain the Barnett formula, which provides favourable public-spending increases per head in Scotland compared with England. Up to 70 Conservative MPs are reportedly threatening to support a House of Commons motion calling for a review of the Barnett formula. They claim it funds some welfare services that are free in Scotland but must be paid for in England.
A simple guide to losing your leader
The process of removing a Tory leader begins with Conservative MPs writing letters to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee requesting a confidence vote in the incumbent.
Those who write such letters are promised anonymity. If letters are received from 15% of Tory parliamentarians – which would be 46 MPs as things currently stand – then a confidence vote is automatically triggered. The vote would be a secret ballot of all 303 Conservative MPs. Cameron would need to win a majority of those voting to remain in post.
It’s a system that weakens the security of a leader’s tenure in many ways. Anonymity in both the letter-writing and voting stages offers cover to disgruntled MPs who might otherwise fear reprisals for their act of mutiny. Even cabinet ministers could make public statements of support for the prime minister but vote against him with impunity in a confidence vote.
The system also means that there is no need for a challenger to come forward to take on the incumbent leader. The first stage of the process is purely a confidence vote so no one needs to stick their head above the parapet.
If the leader lost the vote, a leadership election would follow and they would not be allowed to participate. So cabinet ministers with their eyes on the top job would not need to risk their careers by challenging Cameron directly – they could simply leave it to disgruntled backbenchers, or even to give a nod to their allies to begin a letter-writing campaign in pursuit of a confidence vote.
There have long been rumours that some letters have already been sent to the chairman of the 1922 Committee about Cameron. Worse still, these letters can remain on file for years until such time as the requisite number has been received.
If there were a confidence vote, Cameron would need to win a convincing majority to hold on to his post. While the rules stipulate that he would need to win a bare majority, a slim margin of victory could, in reality, severely undermine his authority and leave his position untenable.
Meanwhile, on the opposition benches, Miliband is relatively secure, regardless of what the press says. Labour does not hold confidence votes and the party’s rules require a challenger to come forward with support from 20% of Labour MPs before a leadership contest can be triggered.
Expect the unexpected
The current Conservative rules were used in 2003 to remove Iain Duncan Smith as Conservative leader. The party also deposed Margaret Thatcher as Conservative leader and prime minister under different rules in November 1990.
It is true that Thatcher and her party were unpopular at the time but curiously, the six months before her removal had seen an improvement in both her own net satisfaction ratings and in her party’s support in the polls. The existence of these leader-eviction rules, and the fact that they could so easily be set in motion played a major role in Thatcher’s demise. Her opponents were able, without too much difficulty, to put her internal popularity to the test.
And indeed, some have said that she was deposed almost by accident. Some MPs may have voted against her thinking it would send a message to the leader without seriously endangering her position. Others who would not ordinarily have pushed for a change of leadership may have decided to vote for a change once presented with a ballot paper.
Cameron is unlikely to be the victim of an accidental defenestration like Thatcher but all it takes is a resentful reaction by backbenchers to bad news to set the process in motion. An event that seems unlikely one minute can quickly build momentum. Before Cameron knows what’s happened, he could have joined the ranks of past Tory leaders who were dispatched by their own colleagues.
This article has been updated following the result of the Rochester and Strood by-election.