It’s the election almost nobody has ever heard of.
But within the next four weeks, a secret ballot will be held behind the closed doors of a wood-panelled committee room, deep inside the U.K. parliament, the result of which may determine Boris Johnson’s future as prime minister.
The vote is to elect the executive members of the 1922 Committee, a group representing rank-and-file Conservative MPs that oversees the party’s internal affairs, including – crucially – leadership challenges.
With Johnson mired in political strife, facing resignations from his government and a string of damaging by-election defeats, there is now an open campaign among critics inside his party to permit a new challenge to his leadership.
Johnson narrowly survived one vote of confidence earlier this month, and under current party rules is therefore safe for a year from being challenged again.
But it is likely to fall to the incoming members of the 1922 Committee executive to decide whether those rules should be changed, allowing another vote to be held sooner than June 2023.
Powerful voices are already demanding such an approach, and it’s one insiders say a new-look committee could adopt.
In what is likely to be worrying news for Johnson, among those considering seeking election as a vice-chair of the committee is backbench power-broker Steve Baker. The influential former Brexit minister has earned a reputation for orchestrating decisive revolts against successive Tory leaders.
Other rebels are also expected to stand in the ballot, which is due to be held before parliament breaks up for the summer recess on July 21.
Persistent claims that Johnson’s allies are already organizing a counter push were strongly denied by a person familiar with government whips’ thinking. The elections are a matter for the 1922 Committee, the person said.
On Friday, Michael Howard, a Conservative peer and former party leader, added his voice to calls for change following the by-elections in Wakefield and in Tiverton and Honiton.
“The party, and more importantly the country, would be better off under new leadership,” Howard told BBC radio. He said it “may be necessary” for the 1922 Committee to change its rules so another leadership vote can be held.
The 1922 Committee’s current treasurer, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, did not rule out changing the rules Friday, saying he wanted first to hear Johnson’s explanations for the by-election defeats.
The current rulebook for electing a leader of the Conservative Party has been in place since 1998.
But the rules for MPs holding votes of no confidence in their leader are not publicly available and are entirely in the hands of the 1922 Committee executive. These rules can be altered at any time.
Back in 2019, the executive committee held its own secret ballot on whether to revise the system to force another vote of confidence in Theresa May’s leadership. Votes were cast and then kept in sealed envelopes. Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, told May he would open the envelopes if she refused to name a date for her resignation. She did, and the envelopes remained sealed.
There are 13 members of the executive committee, including Brady and two vice-chairs. Since Johnson became prime minister in 2019, they have not formally discussed rewriting the rules. That could soon change.