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It's too easy to challenge a Conservative leader. It should be made harder.

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By Paul Goodman

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Fewer Conservative MPs were needed to mount the first formal challenge to Margaret Thatcher than can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  In 1987, the party won 376 seats under her leadership.  But only three Tory MPs were required to force a ballot on it two years later - Sir Anthony Meyer, the "stalking donkey", plus his proposer and seconder.

Sir Anthony lost by 314 votes to a miserable 33, but his candidacy was significant none the less, because it signalled a culture change among Conservative MPs. Some were now prepared to oust their leader in mid-term (and succeeded a year later, when Michael Heseltine's challenge brought about Lady Thatcher's fall).

Almost certainly, those who first framed the rules that governed such challenges had not foreseen this shift in outlook.  Little wonder, then, that Tory MPs decided that these should change.  In 1998, as part of a wider review of the leadership election rules, it was agreed that the requirement for a suitably-nominated MP to issue a challenge to the leader should be abadoned.

In its place was subsituted the present arrangement: 15% of Conservative MPs can obtain a ballot by writing to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee to request one: the names of those who so write are not disclosed.  The leader must then win the ensuing ballot by a simple majority.  This is the system under which the challenge to Iain Duncan Smith's leadership was made.

We should recognise that the 1998 revision wasn't much of an improvement on the status quo ante, for the following reasons:

  • The system gives party members no say.  Why should Tory MPs alone have the right to depose a leader, rather than share it with party members?
  • The anonymity provision is a Coward's Charter.  The system was devised in an era of back-room politiking.  It sits uneasily in the present age of transparency.
  • 15% is too low a threshold.  15 out of 100 Conservative MPs will always be unhappy about something.  It's too small a percentage to justify a leadership ballot.
  • The party shouldn't have to live with ever-present rumblings about leadership challenges.  Labour is at an advantage here, because ousting its leader is harder.

To make a challenge harder now would be to help David Cameron.  But helping or harming the Prime Minister in this context doesn't interest me.  I simply think that the rules are wrong.

For better or worse, I suspect that to alter them now would be impracticable, since Conservative MPs and others would see any attempt to make leadership challenges harder as a Downing Street plot, in much the same way that they saw Mr Cameron's attempt to allow his front bench to vote in 1922 Committee elections as a Number Ten power grab.

It may also be that both party members and Tory MPs will take a more dispassionate view after 2015 (if the Government lasts until then).  But whatever the timing, the 1922 Executive and the Party Board should start thinking now about how to reform the rules, and aim to have a revision in place within a year of the next election having taken place. 

I concede that Tory MPs may feel that the balance of advantage would swing too far the other way - towards the leadership - were they required to confirm publicly that they have no confidence in their leader.  But whatever is decided in that respect, they should no longer have a monopoly on whether the party has confidence in its leader or not.

Members and MPs alike should combine in a college to meet not a 15% threshold, but one of a fifth or even a quarter.  The details should be negotiable, but the principle is clear.  Constant leadership speculation is great for political journalists - me included.  But the rules that govern a challenge should exist for the party's benefit, not ours.


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