🔒 Liz Truss under threat: How UK Tories get rid of their leaders

By Kitty Donaldson

(Bloomberg) — Liz Truss’s UK premiership hangs in the balance after she was forced to abandon large swathes of her economic agenda and ditch her chancellor following a market rout. 

Amid the fallout, the opposition Labour party has opened up a record lead in opinion polls and Truss herself has posted the worst approval ratings ever for a UK leader. 

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Tory MPs are openly moving against the 47-year-old prime minister even though party rules in theory offer her protection from a leadership challenge for a year. What happens next may hinge on how quickly the party can forge a consensus on who should replace her.

Below is a guide to how the party deals with leaders it wants rid of.

Shaping history

The fate of Tory prime ministers is determined by rank-and-file Conservative MPs known as the 1922 Committee. It takes its name from a meeting of Tory lawmakers 100 years ago that ultimately brought down a coalition government and led to the Conservatives winning the ensuing election.

“The ’22” has continued to play a key role in Tory history. While Margaret Thatcher’s demise in 1990 was prompted by her deputy premier quitting, it was her ministers’ advice that she wouldn’t survive a second 1922 committee ballot on her leadership that made her withdraw. Her reference to “men in gray suits” calling on her to stand aside is now often used describe the ‘22.

During her successor John Major’s tenure, the group embodied Tory opposition to closer ties with Europe. David Cameron — who ultimately called the Brexit referendum — wanted to dilute its influence by opening up its membership. He failed. Graham Brady was elected chairman and has has held the job since.

Eyes on Brady

Nowadays the ’22 is primarily a line of communication between the party leadership and the rank-and-file. Reporters gather outside the committee’s weekly meetings to try to gauge the mood by the volume of desk-thumping. When an unhappy Tory MP wants a change in party leadership, it’s Brady they write to. 

In normal times, it requires 15% of Conservative lawmakers to trigger a confidence vote and in the current parliament that means 54. The existing rules protect Truss from a leadership challenge for the first 12 months in office, but they can be changed in response to a groundswell of opinion within the parliamentary party. 

Nobody except Brady knows how many letters have been submitted at any given time. On Sunday, a person close to the committee was playing down rumors that more than a 100 letters may already have been submitted. 

Next steps

The ’22 is due to meet again on Wednesday. That’s the earliest point they could consider changing the rules, though once they do reach a decision, it’s a quick and straightforward process. The prime minister’s opponents will be trying to build momentum ahead of that appointment. 

It’s likely that the committee will want more than 54 letters in order to change the rules. So if they do announce that shift, a confidence vote is likely to follow shortly afterward. 

Once a vote is triggered, Brady would inform Truss and the parliamentary Conservative party, and a vote on his leadership would be held as soon as possible. 

At this point, it seems difficult to imagine that Truss could survive such a vote. But even if she did, it would most likely only delay the inevitable. Both Boris Johnson and Theresa May, her most immediate predecessors, were forced out of office within months of winning a confidence vote. 

There’s another way the Tories could arrive at a leadership contest: Truss’s cabinet could effectively take matters into its own hands. If enough members resign, or perhaps one of the two biggest names, that would signal they have lost confidence. The pressure could then make Truss’s position untenable.

Leadership contest

If Truss were to lose a confidence vote, or if she accepts that her authority has gone and simply resigns, the next step would be a third Tory leadership contest since 2019. 

Under the current rules, Conservative MPs whittle down the candidates to a final two and then grassroots Tory members make the final choice. But again, MPs are unhappy with that system after the debacle of Truss, who only just sneaked into the final round.

There’s a strong feeling among MPs that they need to avoid letting the members choose another prime minister. One way around that would be to put forward a single candidate, but with so many rival factions within the party, Truss’s opponents are struggling to forge a consensus on who should be next. 

Next in line?

Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak was beaten by Truss in last summer’s leadership contest, in which he warned, prophetically, that her economic policy plans would trigger chaos in financial markets. There is talk that he could form an alliance with Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, who finished third in the race. 

Ben Wallace, the defense secretary, saw his stock rise during the war in Ukraine and is another name who has been touted, though he’s said he doesn’t want the job. Jeremy Hunt, who was parachuted in as chancellor last Friday, has been burnishing his credentials as a safe pair of hands on the economy. He says that after losing out in the last two leadership contests, his time has gone. Steve Brine, a Tory MP and an ally of the chancellor, said last week that it’s no secret that he had wanted the job in the past. 

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