No confidence expectations and the numbers game – why 158 is not magic at all

No confidence expectations and the numbers game – why 158 is not magic at all

by Brian Monteith
article from Wednesday 12, December, 2018

AT LEAST 48 letters calling for a vote of confidence in Theresa May as leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party have been received by Sir Graham Brady, the Chairman of the parliamentary party’s 1922 Committee. Thus the process for establishing if there is continuing confidence in her leadership has been triggered. 

The Prime Minister will speak to assembled MPs at 5.00pm tonight and then the vote will be held between 6.00-8.00pm – and an announcement is expected around 9.00pm.

There are 317 Conservative members, of which two are currently suspended from the Whip and unless reinstated will not have a vote, leaving 315. A simple majority will therefore by 50% + 1 which is 158 votes – and this is the number most broadcasters and commentators have been saying Theresa May needs to reach. It is being called the ‘magic number’.

It is not, however, as simple as that.

There are some important considerations to be made about how the vote will be conducted and what reaction there might be to various outcomes – for there are a number of grey areas where Theresa May might ‘win’ but would lose moral and political authority..

As it is a binary vote for or against expressing confidence, an abstention can result in being a vote in favour of the leader as it would prevent votes being tallied in the ‘against’ column. 

For instance if 138 MPs vote against Theresa May but 20 abstain then 157 will have voted in favour of the PM. While this does NOT cross the 158 threshold of an absolute majority it would be a majority.

In such circumstances there would be both public and private calls for Theresa May to resign – but past experience of her stubbornness suggests that outcome might not be clear cut. She might resist – only the resignation of key members of her Cabinet might bring her to conclude she must withdraw.

Likewise she might win 158-157 – a result that for all it would be a victory, surely it would be pyric – surely she could not carry on in such circumstances? Hmmmn!

Also worth considering is the Cabinet and broader payroll vote. Yes, it is a secret ballot but imagine if the vote suggested the Cabinet or payroll vote was rebelling?

Firstly we should consider the behaviour of the Cabinet members.There are 21 full members of the Cabinet, including Theresa May, and a further 7 Ministers of senior rank who ‘attend’ Cabinet making 28 in total. This means that 50%+1 of all the remaining non-Cabinet MPs is 144 against 143 (287).

So, if there are no abstentions that might complicate matters, a vote of less than 172 (144 + 28) would mean that some Cabinet Ministers or fewer than half of all other MPs MUST have voted against the Prime Minister. Anything less than 171 votes in favour of the Prime Minister is not a good look for her continued tenure even though she would have won by more than half of the total number of MPs.

Then there’s the larger payroll vote to consider.It is currently 142[1](made from 96 Ministers or Whips and 46 PPSs = 142) making the number of backbench MPs only 173 –50% of that number is 86.5 so to achieve half of the backbench support requires 87 MPs.

While Theresa May requires only 16 more of those 173 votes to achieve the ‘magic’ number of 158, anything less than 229 votes (142 Payroll + 87 backbenchers) then she has not achieved 50%+1 of backbench MPs with her payroll vote. It MUST mean either some of her Payroll vote has absconded or she does not command the support of half of her backbenchers. I have no doubts she would expect to carry on but it would still be a humiliation.

Confidence of the whole House.Finally, of the 650 MPs there are nominally 323 opposition MPs who do not support Theresa May’s government and if you add to that number only 103 more rebellious Tory MPs that total of 426 would mean exactly two-thirds of the parliament have no confidence in the Prime Minister. Is that really tenable? 

Theresa May would certainly think so – but the public’s faith in British politics would surely be at an all time low if she did not do the honourable thing and resign.

Interesting numbers

426 – Two thirds of the House of Commons (less 3 Speakers and 7 Sinn Fein)

323 – Nominal number of all opposition MPs (including DUP)

229 – Payroll vote plus 50%+1 of backbenchers

173 – Number of Tory Backbenchers

172 – Cabinet members plus 50%+1 of backbenchers

158 – Equalling 50%+1 of Tory MPs

144 – 50%+1 of Tory MPs not attending Cabinet

142 – Government Payroll Vote

103 – Number of Tories against May to make two thirds of Parliament against her

87  – 50%+1 of Tory Backbenchers

28  – All Cabinet members

[1]Who runs Britain:

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