This rotting Cabinet

The conventional wisdom is: weak Prime Minister, strong Cabinet. But what we see is: weak Prime Minister, weak Cabinet.

If Theresa May loses the Commons vote on her deal next week, she will make a statement to the House about her response plans.  Note the way that last sentence is written.

It doesn’t say: “the Government’s plans” or “the Cabinet’s plans” (which are, in effect, the same).  This is because the latter collectively – and as far as can be discerned its members individually – don’t know what these might be.  She could announce her resignation.  She could throw the Government’s weight behind No Deal.  Or No Brexit.  Or an extension to Article 50, rather than revocation – perhaps with a second referendum in mind, perhaps not.  Or the Norway or Canada-type deals that she has rejected.  Or some other variant that no-one has anticipated.  Or say that her deal has clearly failed, and that she is now the servant of the Commons, paving her way for indicative votes.

Or, most likely of all, play for time, say that she will re-open her conversations with Brussels to seek real movement on the Northern Ireland backstop.  The logic of her present position is to do exactly that: the closer to March 29 she gets, the more pressure will come to bear on the EU to make concessions, real or token, and on MPs to back her deal, for fear of the No Deal or No Brexit to which different groups of them are opposed.  This is the logic of her game of chicken.

Some of those other options are more likely than others, and some can be ruled out altogether. Openly throwing her weight behind No Deal would risk a small number of Remain-orientated Conservative MPs voting with Jeremy Corbyn in the a confidence vote.  Backing No Brexit would divide the Conservative Party to the point where it might split altogether.  This takes us back to where we started – the role of the Cabinet.

The Prime Minister will not go to the Commons with plans without discussing them with the Cabinet first: that would clearly be a risk too far.  But it is striking that, less than a week out from the “meaningful vote”, its members have no idea what these might be.  It is possible that May doesn’t know herself.  But if she does, she is not the sort of person to take her colleagues into her confidence, especially under current circumstances.  One Cabinet Minister wearily told ConservativeHome late last year that “the problem with Theresa is that doesn’t trust anyone”.  Until the last general election, her inner circle consisted of three people: Nick Timothy, Fiona Hill – and Philip May.  Only one of them survives.

The conventional wisdom is: big majority, strong Prime Minister, weak Cabinet; small majority, weak Prime Minister, strong Cabinet.  In some senses, it holds true.  Consider an example from this morning.  On the one hand, Greg Clark is preparing his department for No Deal.  On the other, he today urges Parliament to “move quickly and act responsibly to establish what will, and will not, command support. Parliament can establish that it wants a no-deal Brexit to be ruled out”.  In short, he is urging MPs to seek to block No Deal if May’s deal falls – thereby urging them to oppose an outcome which he is tasked to prepare for.  This is not the Government position.

In one sense, Clark should resign.  In another, one can’t really blame him for not doing so.  After all, Cabinet disciple has broken down altogether, with its members openly briefly journalists about what they plan to say in its meetings, and reporting back about what happens afterwards.  Why should the Business Secretary quit while others stay?  One senior member of the lobby told ConservativeHome yesterday that this is the leakiest Cabinet in his experience – not, he added, that any journalists should complain about it.  “It’s a political Mogadishu out there,” he said, presumably thinking back to Black Hawk Down, “with Cabinet members firing off their machine guns from the back of trucks”.

None the less, there is reason to argue that what we are actually seeing is: small majority, weak Prime Minister, weak Cabinet.  The ultimate weapon of an unhappy Cabinet member is the threat of resignation.  But May has survived the loss of four Cabinet members in scarcely more than six months: David Davis, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Esther McVey.  The last discovered the hard way that the Prime Minister controls the agenda and minutes of Cabinet meetings, and that there are no votes.

Those Leavers who didn’t resign over the deal have been forced to swallow the logic of their decision.  The Michael Gove who joked in Cabinet this week about anti-deal Conservative MPs was recently such a person himself – turning down the Brexit Secretary post rather than propound the Prime Minister’s position.  At Cabinet level, passive acceptance of a view must ultimately morph into active propagandising for it.

Short of resignation, there is always the more politicianly option of working with Cabinet colleagues to shift the Prime Minister’s position.  But this takes us to the heart of the matter.  There is no Cabinet consensus about what to do if the deal goes down.  Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt and the surviving referendum Leavers lean towards No Deal in extremis.  Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Clark and others are setting themselves against No Deal completely.  Furthermore, May, though scarred by last month’s confidence ballot, survived it.  She cannot be formally challenged as Party leader until the end of this year.  In a way, then, she now draws power from her Cabinet’s divisions and indecision.  In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed woman is queen.

The European Union complains that the Government doesn’t know where it wants to end up.  Closely aligned to the EU or more distant?  Norway or Canada?  It is absolutely right.

Cabinet members are united on one point, however.  All now hope that May’s deal passes Parliament, if not next week, then later.  And, collectively, they will carry on hoping – as authority drains away from them to Dominic Grieve, Steve Baker, and the Opposition, among whose numbers we of naturally include the Speaker.  This Cabinet is firewood.

Tim Bale: Johnson and Rees-Mogg are still in with a shout in the race to succeed May

New polling also reveals that neither is so far ahead as to be unstoppable, however.

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, and co-runs the ESRC Party Members Project (PMP), which aims to study party membership in the six largest British parties.

In order to stay in office, the Prime Minister had to promise her party that she would be gone before the next election.  But there’s little agreement among Conservative members – and even less agreement among Conservative voters – as to who should replace her.

The ESRC-funded Party Members Project, run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, surveyed 1215 Conservative Party members between 17th and 22nd December, and a total of 1675 voters between 18-19 December, including 473 individuals who were intending to vote Conservative. The fieldwork was conducted by YouGov.

Respondents were asked the following question: Theresa May has said she will stand down as Conservative Party leader before the next scheduled general election in 2022.  Who would you most like to see replace her as Conservative Leader?  Neither group was presented with a pre-determined list of candidates but was instead asked to write in a name, and they were of course free to say that they didn’t know or weren’t sure, et cetera.

The table below gives the results, leaving out all those names that received only a handful or so of mentions – a group of people which included some relatively high-profile figures who are sometimes mentioned as potential candidates: Esther McVey is one example, since her name was suggested by only four Tory members (out of the 1162 who answered the leadership question) and no Tory voters. The table also contains a column allowing comparison with the results published by ConservativeHome on 31 December 2018, although their survey, unlike ours, gives respondents a list of names to choose from.

Tory Voters

(per cent)

Tory Members

(per cent)


(per cent)

Boris Johnson 15 20 27
Jacob Rees-Mogg 7 15 4
Don’t Know 38 12 N/A
David Davis 4 8 7
Sajid Javid 2 8 13
Dominic Raab 3 7 12
Jeremy Hunt 2 6 9
Amber Rudd 4 5 5
Michael Gove 2 4 3
Penny Mordaunt 0 1 4


The results of the survey provide an insight into why Theresa May survived the confidence vote she was subjected to by some of her MPs just before Christmas. Right now, it’s anyone’s guess as to who might replace her – and that very uncertainty is bound to have worked to the PM’s advantage.

Clearly, Johnson and Rees-Mogg, both of them Brexiteers with high name-recognition, currently have the edge over other potential candidates to succeed May. Indeed, all the other candidates are beaten by ‘Don’t know’, even among Tory members. That said, when it comes to Tory voters, the same is true even of Johnson and Rees-Mogg.

Importantly, neither Johnson nor Rees-Mogg is so far ahead of the rest of the field as to be impossible to catch.  In any case, both are likely to find it hard to make it through the parliamentary round of voting that, according to the party’s rules, narrows the field to two candidates before grassroots members are given the final say.

Also striking is the dominance of men over women: at the moment it looks unlikely that the Conservatives will replace their second female leader with a third. Amber Rudd is almost certainly too much of a Remainer for a membership dominated not just by Brexiteers but by hard Brexiteers. Meanwhile Penny Mordaunt (mentioned by just 14 out of 1162 Tory members and by no Tory voters) clearly still has an awful lot to do.

The same looks to be true, however, of the three or four men likely to throw their hats into the ring – Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab, and Jeremy Hunt, whose recent trip to Singapore has been widely interpreted as part of his ongoing leadership bid. And Michael Gove is not so far behind as to make a second crack at the top job a complete fool’s errand, in spite of the mess he made of the last leadership contest.

Perhaps the bookies are right in marking Gove at 10/1. This isn’t far off the 9/1 you’d get if you put your money on Hunt and the 8/1 you’d get on Raab, but still some way off the 6/1 offered for Johnson and, interestingly, Javid – who, like Hunt, many claim has been very much ‘on manoeuvres’ recently.

Testing our survey against the latest polling of Party members. New evidence on Next Tory Leader.

Johnson has topped an ESCR poll, as he did our last survey. Its findings are even better for Brexiteers than ours.

Today’s Observer contains a brief summary of more polling of Conservative Party members for the ESCR Party Members Project.  It is squeezed into a larger story on Labour and Brexit, and the paper’s account doesn’t come with a table and full details.  None the less, it provides another opportunity to test Conservative Home’s monthly survey against a properly weighted opinion poll.  Mark Wallace looked at other recent evidence from the Project late last week.

Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and David Davis are “top of the party’s grassroots list” as preferred candidates to replace Theresa May, the Observer reports.  It says that Johnson “topped the poll” with 20 per cent, that Rees-Mogg “trailed in second on 15 per cent” and that  Davis “scored 8 per cent”. We read separately that Sajid Javid also scored per 8 cent in the poll, so Dominic Raab, with 7 per cent, was therefore fifth.

So discounting the don’t knows, the ESCR Project’s top five are –

  • Johnson – 20 per cent.
  • Rees-Mogg – 15 per cent.
  • Davis – 8 per cent.
  • Javid – 8 per cent.
  • Raab – 7 per cent.

And the top five candidates in our last Next Tory Leader survey were –

  • Johnson – 27 per cent.
  • Javid – 13 per cent.
  • Raab – 12 per cent.
  • Jeremy Hunt – 9 per cent.
  • Davis – 7 per cent.

It appears that ESCR put nine names to their Party member respondents: Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Davis, Javid, Raab, Jeremy Hunt (6 per cent in its poll), Amber Rudd (5 per cent in its poll, 5 per cent in our last survey), Michael Gove (4 per cent and 3 per cent respectively) and Penny Mordaunt (one per cent and 4 per cent respectively).  We currently offer no fewer than 19 names, all of whom have been spoken of as potential leadership candidates.

Four of the ESCR’s top five – Johnson, Davis, Javid and Raab – overlap with our top five.  Hunt was in our top five, but not in the ESCR’s (which had him sixth on 6 per cent).  Jacob-Rees Mogg is in the ESCR’s top five; he wasn’t in ours (he was seventh with 4 per cent).  It is sometimes claimed that the ConHome panel is more Eurosceptic than Party membership as a whole.  That may be correct – but as matters stand this ESCR result actually finds the reverse, though it is of course only a single piece of evidence.

The ESCR Project is run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University.  Its last blog on its latest polling of Party members says that it surveyed 1215 Conservative Party members.  YouGov conducted the polling between December 17 and December 22.

Javid is right about illegal immigration across the Channel – and his critics help to underline his point

Cynics suggest his leadership rivals stoked up this ‘crisis’ – if so, they (and outraged Labour MPs) might find their approach is backfiring.

Speculation has abounded in recent days that some Conservative voices might not have been wholly without vested interest in hyping up the ‘crisis’ of illegal immigrants crossing the Channel. After all, the Home Secretary has managed to position himself in second place in the next Tory leader stakes, and a headline-grabbing problem in UK border control while he is on holiday might, cynics suggest, threaten to take the shine off him to the gratification of some of his rivals.

Maybe those theories are true, maybe they aren’t. Either way, complaining about such under-hand tactics – or, worse, complaining about the media’s keen interest in the story, regardless of its source – would hardly be productive for Sajid Javid. Instead, he has sought to do what any successful politician would in the circumstances: get a lid on the issue as fast as possible, and try to turn it to his advantage.

So it was that yesterday found the Home Secretary on the waterfront at Dover, in front of a television camera:

He’s right, of course.

Those fleeing murderous tyrants in Iran or Syria take large risks for good reasons. We should do our best to help defend their lives and liberty. Indeed, the UK has rightly done a huge amount to aid refugees in the Middle East – including granting asylum to some of the most vulnerable people, transported to this country directly from camps in the region.

One has to question the motivation to flee for asylum from France to this country, however. For all the disruption of the gilets jaunes protests against Emmanuel Macron’s plans for punitive green taxes, our neighbour remains a prosperous and largely liberal country. There is no sign that those claiming asylum in the coastal towns of Kent are doing so because of their status as oppressed French diesel drivers.

Admittedly, it is not always so simple as insisting refugees must stop in the first country they reach. Someone leaving Iran to avoid persecution for their race, sexuality or political beliefs might well have good reason not to feel safe in various neighbouring countries. It isn’t hard to see why many Kurds are not keen on seeking asylum in Turkey, for example. But there are a lot of safe countries between here and Turkey.

The awkward truth is that there is not always a clear distinction between refugees and economic migrants – and the two statuses can, and do, mingle as a journey progresses. Many people travel extremely long distances and take huge risks simply out of desperation, knowing that the alternative is death. Some aim to reach this country in particular for reasons consistent with their suffering in their land of origin – their religion, for example, or because they place particular faith in our rule of law.

But some who begin their journeys in search of refuge also choose their destinations with economic considerations in mind, rather than stop in the first safe country as Javid suggests. Why wouldn’t you try your best to go somewhere that you believe to offer a good chance of a decent job? Or where you already speak the language? In any circumstance, people will always aim for the best possible outcome for themselves. That’s human nature.

It’s also human nature that criminals are eternally ready to innovate in order to profit from the misery of others. The people-smuggling industry which flourished in the Mediterranean appears to have identified a new market opportunity in those seeking to cross the Channel.

Those Labour MPs and refugee campaigners who are frothing furiously at Javid’s comments are doubly wrong. For a start, if they think their comments are harming him they are mistaken – being under fire for a firm stance against illegal immigration across the Channel is not a bad place for a Conservative Home Secretary to find himself. If anything, their outrage aids him in reversing the reputational damage which the ‘crisis’ threatened in the first place.

More importantly, Javid’s critics seem to be speaking from a dangerous position of theory rather than practice. We already know what happens when politicians, no matter how well-intentioned, recklessly encourage refugees and other migrants to hand all their belongings to criminal gangs in order to risk their lives in perilous sea crossings. Angela Merkel sent just such an inviting message on the EU’s behalf, and tens of thousands of people then died in the Mediterranean and the Aegean. Had Germany taken the same approach to aiding Syrian refugees as the UK did, focused on results rather than appearances, the outcome might have been very different.

Hunt seizes the top spot in our Cabinet League Table, but overall ratings continue to struggle

Meanwhile, Leadsom makes huge gains following her rebuke to the Speaker over alleged sexist remarks.

The above chart shows our final Cabinet League Table of 2018. Given that last month saw the worst ever approval ratings in the history of this question on ConservativeHome’s Party members survey, it is unsurprising that this month’s picture is still pretty grim.

In total, 14 members of the Cabinet have net negative ratings – only two of last month’s record tally of 16 have managed to escape minus figures.

Andrea Leadsom, presumably on the back of her remarkable question to the Speaker over allegations of sexism, leaps from -16.3 to +34.2, a dramatic change of fortunes that I suspect illustrates how deeply many Conservative members dislike John Bercow as much as anything else.

The second Cabinet minister who escaped from the reputational dungeon in the course of the last few weeks is Liam Fox, who registers a rise from -11.8 in our November survey to +7.7 this month. That will no doubt be welcome news for the International Trade Secretary, but it’s somewhat cold comfort when you consider that in January’s survey he was in fourth place with a mighty +60.6.

At the top of the table, Jeremy Hunt sees his rating improve from +41.7 to +60.6, and leapfrogs Geoffrey Cox to seize the top spot. The Foreign Secretary has certainly been active, and has evidently been impressing the grassroots with his performance. Further announcements since the survey closed – of a review of policy on the oppression of Christians, and of his proposals for post-Brexit economic reform – are unlikely to have hurt him, either.

Jumping from fifth place to third is Penny Mordaunt, who almost doubles her rating from +19.2 to +37.9. Reports that she is campaigning within Cabinet for a Managed No Deal will have aided her in regaining some of the points which she lost when the Prime Minister’s proposed deal was published.

And that’s really what this month’s story is about – for those in positive territory, at least. Some ministers in the upper third are managing to recover lost ground faster than others, while several of those in the bottom third are continuing to sink.

Chris Grayling loses another 11.4 points – on the back of the drone farce – to overtake the Chancellor at the very bottom of the table. Hammond manages to slip another 1.3. Theresa May is essentially bobbing level at -41.6 from last month’s -42.

Meanwhile, the Chief Whip has lost 13.5 points, falling to -34.4, I’d suggest due in no small part to reports he had been talking to Labour MPs to secure opposition votes for the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan. David Gauke, too, continues to suffer further damage by association with the proposed deal, losing 19.2 points to plumb -25.5, following high profile comments criticising No Deal proponents in Cabinet for selling “unicorns”, which he pledged to “slay”.

While last month’s Cabinet League Table was pretty dire all round, this month’s is a more complex picture. Some are clearly recovering better and faster from the harm done to them by May’s deal than others – and the table overall is diverging. The top ten ministers saw their combined score rise from +206.1 to +339, while the bottom ten saw their combined score fall from -302.7 to -351.2.

Overall, that means the Cabinet as a whole benefited from a small rise in its total rating, from -140.5 to -16. However, that still makes this the second time ever that our survey has delivered an overall negative approval rating for the Cabinet. Putting this month in the context of the last year is quite stark:

Our survey. Next Tory leader. Johnson is top again. Javid second, Raab third. Hunt is now fourth.

There are three contenders in double figures, one well ahead of the other two – and a very long tail of names in single figures,

It’s much the same story in our final Next Tory Leader survey of 2018.  Boris Johnson is top with more than double the score of the man who stays second – Sajid Javid.  The Home Secretary continues narrowly to fend off Dominic Raab, who stays third.

Last month, Johnson was on 24 per cent.  He moves up a bit to 27 per cent.  Javid puts on a point to come in at 13 per cent.  Raab does likewise and is now on 12 per cent.

David Davis drops from ten per cent to seven per cent.  Jeremy Hunt is up from seven per cent to nine per cent, and displaces Davis in fourth place.

But the snapshot picture is that there are three contenders in double figures, one well ahead of the other two – and a very long tail of names in single figures, to which we must add Esther McVey, new in the table this month.

Footnote: Theresa May can’t now be challenged via a confidence ballot for the best part of a year, so as a courtesy we’ve suspended a question we’ve asked since July last year – namely, if she should resign as Party leader and when.

However, it would be foolhardy to assume that she will necessarily be in place in twelve months’ time or earlier.  So the Next Tory Leader question stays pertinent.

ConservativeHome Awards: Cox scoops another gong as ‘Minister of the Year’

The Attorney General saw off strong competition from Michael Gove and Sajid Javid, with Liz Truss missing out on a podium spot.

Another day, another round of announcements for the 2018 ConservativeHome awards. After yesterday’s Brexit-focused categories, today we’re shifting focus.

First up: Minister of the Year, where our survey panel cast their ballots to decide which Conservative has been most effective in government over the past 12 months. The candidates were:

Michael Gove: With aggressive moves to ban plastic straws and ivory, the Environment Secretary is helping the Government make its mark on green issues.

Geoffrey Cox: The Attorney General has played a key role in forcing the Cabinet to confront the legal reality of May’s deal

Liz Truss: As Chief Secretary to the Treasury, she is perhaps the most ardent champion of small-state Thatcherism on the list

Sajid Javid: The Home Secretary has tackled the thorny subject of grooming gangs head on, and broken with May’s approach in his new department

And the winner is… Geoffrey Cox! It appears that not even the unprecedented event of the Government being found in contempt of Parliament is sufficient to dent our readers’ confidence in the senior law officer.

Of the rest of the pack, both Gove and Javid took around a quarter of the vote each, with Truss bringing up the rear with around 12 per cent.

Here are the results in full:

How unusual – Downing Street trying to persuade the Home Office to be tougher on immigration

Normally it’s the other way round. How long will it be before the traditional divide reasserts itself?

The Home Office and the Treasury have a fraught history of squabbling over immigration. Home Secretaries place primacy on questions of border integrity and control, and know that various of their predecessors’ careers have been destroyed by failing to live up to popular expectations and their own promises on the topic. The Treasury, meanwhile, believes – both due to its own analysis and its regular contact with large businesses – that their colleagues on Marsham Street are imperilling economic growth with an obsession with constraining immigration at any cost.

The balance of power within government between these two positions ebbs and flows. In the Cameron years, the “tens of thousands” net migration pledge held – at least rhetorically, if not practically – as a form of uneasy truce. The two occupants of Downing Street were instinctively more relaxed about immigration than Theresa May, but they recognised that any prospect of electoral success required at least some presentational effort to square away the issue.

Nonetheless, as the target was repeatedly missed it became a source of friction in both directions, with the Treasury wondering aloud about relaxing an unmet goal, perhaps by exempting students, and the Home Office pointing to the rise of UKIP as a deterrent against any attempt to abandon it. Everybody knew that the net migration pledge was essentially unfulfillable, at least while the UK economy grew and EU membership required free movement, but the already sensitive topic was becoming harder and harder to handle. It duly helped to sink Cameron’s renegotiation, and then contributed in no small part to his defeat in the referendum.

Traditionally the Treasury has tended to have more influence in Number 10 than the Home Office. Chancellors hold a more mighty Great Office of State, they live next door to the Prime Minister, and they control the purse strings. Added to which, the growth of the rights which the Treasury claims over other departments means that its officials often end up going to Number 10 in various capacities, both operational and policy.

Given that context the immigration battle within government normally involves the Treasury pushing for more, with a sympathetic hearing from the Prime Minister, and the Home Office battling for less, waving the polls as a cudgel.

However, this is 2018 so everything is upside down and back to front – hence the peculiar sight of a Home Office-dominated Number 10, occupied by a Prime Minister personally committed to the “tens of thousands” pledge, trying to persuade a more business-minded Home Secretary to be tougher on immigration than he would instinctively like.

One can see in the way that May prioritised immigration apparently above everything else including the costs of EU regulation in her Brexit negotiations that she has no intention of shifting her position. Where David Cameron once joked that he and she were the only two supporters of the net migration target in government, she now seems like the only one. Indeed, it has fallen to a frustrated Downing Street to clarify today that this is still the official policy, after the Home Secretary told the BBC “there’s no specific target.”

I wouldn’t expect this unusual state of affairs to persist for very long, though; the traditional Treasury vs Home Office divide will likely reassert itself in time. Brexit offers the chance to draw some of the fury out of the immigration debate, as can already be seen by a softening of public opinion now that people at least believe the policy will be under their democratic control. As that happens, I suspect we will see more intense inter-departmental scraps about it, as ambitious ministers bid to appeal to different segments of the electorate – in other words, returning the topic to one of normal democratic politics.

158 is not the magic number

A confidence ballot may be declared today, and it may not. But if it is, a simple majority for May might not be enough.

Godot is within sight, the boy is crying “wolf” at the top of his voice – and Wesminster is assuming that a ballot of confidence in Theresa May’s leadership will be declared today.  Graham Brady has reportedly received at least 48 letters demanding one.

Sir Graham being Sir Graham, he is keeping mum, exactly as he should, and it is still possible that the reports are wrong.  This being so, we will simply report that, if they aren’t, the confidence ballot is likely to take place later this week or early next.  If the Prime Minister isn’t successful in it, there is time for the Parliamentary stage of a leadership election to take place next week – indeed, more than enough, since the Commons doesn’t rise until next Thursday, December 20.  The membership stage would take place after Christmas.

We write about May being successful (or not successful) rather than winning (or losing) because of an important point.  It is being claimed that “158 is the magic number” – since 157.7 is what one is left with if one divides the 315 MPs in receipt of the Conservative whip in half.

But imagine for a moment that 159 votes express confidence in her leadership, if a ballot takes place, and 156 do not.  Could she then carry on as Party leader?  We believe not.  The ballot would not have found sufficient consensus for her leadership.  We cite a precedent.  204 votes were cast for Margaret Thatcher during the 1990 Conservative leadership contest, and 168 were not – 152 Tory MPs opted for Michael Heseltine and 16 abstained.  She won a clear majority of those voting.  But she was forced out none the less.

In reply, you may quote the 1995 leadership contest, in which over a third of Conservative MPs didn’t back John Major – a substantial proportion.  But he stayed on.  We would counter-object that there is a difference between a third and, say, just under half.

At which point, others might join the conversation, pointing out that the rules of Tory leadership contests have changed since 1995, let alone 1990.  Which reinforces our point: deciding what does and doesn’t count as success in a Conservative leadership contest is an art, not a science.  As much depends on expectation – not to mention who spins loudest and longest – as figures.  Personality, mood, psyops and that glorious Burkean word, circumstances: all play their part in deciding the drama.  There is no magic number.

Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and other Cabinet members with leadership aspirations will tremble at the possibility of the Prime Minister winning any ballot, but not winning well.  That would set up a conflict between loyalty and ambition from which they might not emerge undamaged.

Iain Dale: On Newsnight, I erect my Tower of Power

And: For May, there should be no way back from losing. My Tory leadership straw poll. Cox, a man of substance and integrity. Plus, Tower of Power extra: Dick for Iain.

Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publishing, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.

We live in momentous times. When I write this column next Friday, Theresa May could not longer be prime minister.

Wednesday next week will be a more interesting day than Tuesday. No-one now expects the Government to win the Brexit deal vote, and the only debate about what will happen is about is the size of the defeat. If the size of the majority against the Government motion is more than 100, it is very difficult to see how the Prime Minister, in all conscience, could stay on. There’s no way back from that, I’d have thought.

But we don’t live in normal times, and we know all about the Prime Minister’s stickability. The Opposition, whatever the size of their win, will no doubt call a vote of confidence. They’d be mad not to. The Government will win it, surely, but it could be a pyrrhic victory.

It must be likely that by midday on Wednesday, Graham Brady will have received the 48 letters needed to force a vote of confidence in May’s leadership. Again, she may well win that vote, mainly because of the absence of a clear alternative leader, but the size of the victory would be crucial. Could she really carry on if more than 100 Tory MPs voted against her? And they surely would.

– – – – – – – – – –

Twitter polls aren’t exactly scientific, and are just a bit of fun, but they do attract large numbers of people to vote.

I put up a poll on Wednesday offering people the choice of Boris Johnson, David Davis, Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt as next leader of the Conservative Party. In Twitter polls, you can only offer four choices.

Within 15 hours, nearly 10,000 people had voted. The result? Johnson got 41 per cent, Davis 25 per cent, Javid 21 per cent and Hunt 13 per cent. Make of that what you will.

The important electorate would of course initially be Tory MPs. My guess is that Johnson would not be in the top two. His performance in the Brexit debate this week will hardly have improved his chances.

– – – – – – – – – –

Another senior Conservative whose fortunes have fluctuated this week is the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox. His bombastic performance at the Dispatch Box on Tuesday led many to speculate that he could be a dark horse candidate for the leadership. And you could see why.

But less than 24 hours later his body language on the front bench was somewhat different, as Andrea Leadsom announced that the government would heed the vote of MPs and publish the Attorney’s legal advice on the Northern Ireland backstop. He looked a broken man and I wondered whether he might be thinking about resigning.

I’m sure he considered it, but he remains in post. And a jolly good thing too. I am sure he has a massive contribution to make to Conservative politics, and despite what happened this week he is still seen as a man of substance and integrity.

– – – – – – – – –

“Hello, it’s Newsnight here – are you free to come on tonight and take part in a panel with a difference?” said the producer. “What’s the difference,” I asked nervously. “Well, we’ve got a Tower of Power and we want you to explain who the most important players are in what’s going on at the moment by pinning them from top to bottom on our model of Big Ben.” “Oh well,” I thought, “at least it’s not a whiteboard”.

So Paul Mason, Bronwen Maddox from the Institute of Government and I did our best to explain to the audience why we thought MPs were now more important in the process than the Cabinet. They had, to coin a phrase, taken back control. Yes, it was a gimmick, but it proved a very good way of explaining with a visual aid, something which is actually quite complicated. I suspect we might be seeing more of the Tower of Power…

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Each day I spend several hours at LBC preparing for my radio show with my two producers. On Tuesday, I got a bit of a surprise when I was flicking through the list of clips and interviews on our computer system: I saw a clip called ‘DICK FOR IAIN’.

“Well this is going to be a different sort of show,” I thought to myself. I was somewhat disappointed to find that it was a clip of the Cressida Dick talking to Nick Ferrari. Oh well.