Earlier this month Boris Johnson scraped to victory in a vote of no confidence, following months of speculation regarding his backing among his own MPs.
211 (almost 59 per cent) MPs voted in favour of keeping him in No 10, while 148 (around 41 per cent) voted to oust him.
While Johnson ultimately won the vote, he has performed worse than several previous Conservative leaders whose reputation never recovered from the challenge, and the question of a fresh threat to his premiership from his party remains.
What is the 1922 committee?
The 1922 Committee, sometimes nicknamed “the 22”, contains all backbench Conservative MPs. During the lead-up to and aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, it became common to refer to them as the “men in grey suits”.
The committee meets weekly when the House of Commons is in session, and its chair is elected by all MPs who are members.
The committee was formed in April 1923 to encourage backbench cooperation in the parliamentary party.
It followed the landmark 1922 general election in which Bonar Law led the Tories to victory, but marked the rise of Labour as their main rival, with the Liberals falling into third place.
Shadow ministers may attend meetings when the party is not in government, though the party leader may not.
The position of chair has been held by Altrincham and Sale West MP Sir Graham Brady, MP since 2010.
What are the current rules and could they change?
Under the 1922 committee’s current rules, Johnson’s victory in his 6 June confidence vote means he cannot face another confidence vote for twelve months.
180 MPs from the total of 359 that currently have the Conservative whip would need to vote against the prime minister in a confidence vote to trigger a leadership contest.
While the rules surrounding the “no confidence” process are not published in the public domain, the Institute of Government says the rules can be changed at any time by the executive of the 1922 committee in consultation with the Conservative Party board.
However after Theresa May survived her 2018 no-confidence vote, Sir Graham reportedly told her to tender her intention to resign, or a rule change to push another vote would go ahead.
Christopher Howarth, a leading Brexit campaigner, says he obtained a copy of the rules while May remained in No 10, and has claimed that: “It was clear from the top of the first page that the famous “12-month period/no 2nd election” guarantee was moonshine. The ’22 executive could change the rules in an afternoon to give us another leadership election.”
Two former 1922 chairs – Lord Spicer and Lord Hamilton of Epsom – made similar claims, writing in The Telegraph newspaper in 2019 that: “Conservative MPs are responsible for their party. If they wish a change these rules there is nothing standing in their way.”
The Independent has also reported that rebel Conservative MPs are now bent on a rule change, given that a further no-confidence vote on the prime minister is currently permitted after 12 months.
Why would a rule change happen?
At first glance, the executive offices of the 1922 committee appear populated by MPs such as William Wragg, Nus Ghani, Gary Sambrook, and Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, who all have issued stark criticisms of Boris Johnson.
Several disgruntled backbenchers, including Tobias Ellwood and Sir Roger Gale, have already alleged that the committee are considering rule changes.
However new rules are more likely to be rolled out if the tide is seen to shift among MPs.
The Conservatives will soon face two by-elections, in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton respectively, on 23 June.
Lacklustre results in these seats could prompt further complaints from Conservative MPs, laying the groundwork for possible rule changes and the threat of a further no-confidence vote.
Ministerial resignations, which some sources suggest are on the horizon, could also diminish Johnson’s chances of regaining backbench backing.
Just yesterday, the resignation of the prime minister’s ethics adviser over potential breaches of WTO rules was a further blow to No 10.
The prime minister also remains under investigation by the cross-party standards committee for potentially misleading the House in his remarks on the Partygate affair. This probe is likely to wind up sometime in the Autumn.
If Johnson is found to have breached conduct rules he could be suspended from the House of Commons as a penalty.
If an MP is suspended from the House of Commons for at least 10 sitting days following a recommendation of the Committee of Standards, their constituents can prompt a recall petition.
If signed by 10 per cent of electors in the relevant local constituency, a recall position is a mechanism that formally leads to a by-election being held in the constituency concerned.
Such a process could lead to Boris Johnson’s removal as a Conservative MP. His 2019 majority of 7,210 in Uxbridge and South Ruislip is already the smallest of recent prime ministers.
While the Queen’s process of appointing the prime minister assumes they will sit in the Commons, there is no precedent for what would happen if they lost their parliamentary seat while already in the role.
Although the Conservative party’s rules also fail to specify whether a leader who lost their seat MP would need to resign, it seems this would depend on the leader’s level of support- of which Boris Johnson’s is already precarious among both MPs and the party’s grassroots.
If Johnson were put in such a position and failed to step down as party leader, MPs would potentially grow frustrated with the impact of the scandal on his role as PM, and more letters would be forwarded to Sir Graham Brady.
It is then possible that the 1922 committee would change their rules to push for another vote of confidence, or Johnson would be pushed to resign before another could take place.
Even if the standards committee finds Johnson guilty of breaching the ministerial code but does not recommend a suspension exceeding 10 days he is still at risk of a similar course of events given the scandal that might erupt if he were to be found to have misled MPs.
Would a fresh vote end Johnson’s premiership?
Should a future no-confidence vote be lost by the prime minister, a leadership contest will henceforth be triggered, which Johnson would be barred from.
While there is no certainty that Johnson would lose a new vote, he could potentially choose to resign if he won by a smaller margin than this month’s vote.
It seems a voluntary farewell is one of Johnson’s least likely options however. Following the 6 June vote Johnson even seemed to suggest his position had improved, given that he was supported by almost 60 per cent of Conservative MPs compared to 51 per cent in the 2019 leadership election.