Lessons from the confidence vote in Mrs May

The main lesson perhaps is that an incumbent leader needs an overwhelming majority in order to silence his or her critics, and bring the Party back under reasonably firm control. In the case of Mrs Thatcher in November 1990, a victory by over 50 in the initial ballot was seen as insufficient to restore her authority, and she withdrew from the contest.

On 12 December, though Mrs May received four votes less than Mrs Thatcher in 1990, her margin of victory was 83. Yet despite being significantly larger, it was still not enough to end opposition to her continued leadership among some MPs .

The rules that applied this year were not exactly the same as those that existed in 1990, as Alistair Lexden pointed out in the lead letter published in The Times on 14 December. He also repeated his call made in an earlier letter in November that letters asking for a confidence vote should be made public.

Sir, Mrs Thatcher never had to face a vote of confidence (“Parallels with Thatcher in 1990 hard to avoid”, Dec.13). In her day a Conservative leader could only be challenged by other candidate(s) during a fixed period at the start of each parliamentary session. The present arrangements enable discontented MPs to try to take action against an incumbent leader at any time. Rumours and speculation about secret letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee are certain to abound whenever a leader runs into difficulties.  Secrecy extends the damaging period during which the leader is seen as insecure. An open system should be introduced: if MPs had to make their letters of no confidence public they would act only when discontent had reached serious levels and needed to be addressed in the interests of the whole party. What sadly no electoral system can ensure is a resounding victory for the incumbent which settles the issue.

Lord Lexden
Conservative Party historian
House of Lords