Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, speaks during a meeting with Estonia’s Prime Minister Juri Ratas inside number 10 Downing Street in London, U.K

How the Conservative Party Could Fire Theresa May

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Theresa May was described as a “dead woman walking” after losing her party’s majority in the June 2017 election. She’s still on her feet 16 months later but her position is far from secure.

As she tries to wrestle a Brexit deal out of the European Union, May is engaged in a daily battle with her divided party and faces persistent rumors that a formal leadership challenge is about to be launched.

A move to oust the Tory leader would kick off in the same oak-panelled, neo-gothic splendor of committee room 14 in London’s decaying Parliament complex in which she addressed the so-called 1922 Committee of Conservative politicians this week.

The group takes its name from a meeting of Tories in 1922 which called for the end of the party’s coalition with the Liberals, bringing down the government of David Lloyd George. The Tories won the ensuing election.

Nowadays it serves as a line of communication between the party’s leadership -- sat in the front row in the House of Commons -- and the backbenchers. At key moments of political drama, reporters gather outside the committee room to try to judge the mood by the noise of supportive table-thumping inside.

Secret Letters

Current chairman of the 1922 Committee Graham Brady, 51, holds the job of overseeing the procedure for electing and removing party leaders. If he receives 48 letters from disgruntled Tory lawmakers who want May to go, he is obliged to hold a vote of confidence in her leadership. The current number of missives, which are safely locked away, is never revealed.

“I never comment on the question of whether I have received letters calling for a confidence vote so any speculation about the number of letters I have received is pure speculation,” Brady said in an interview.

If the magic number is reached, Brady would inform the premier and his lawmakers and a vote on May’s future would be held as soon as possible.

The problem for those who want to eject May is one of numbers. They only need 48 lawmakers to demand a confidence vote, but 158 to win it. While they’re confident of the former, they don’t think they have the latter. Many Tories are hesitant to undermine the prime minister with Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist Labour Party itching to take power.

Influential

Still, if it does happen, it would continue the 1922 Committee’s long history of holding Conservative leaders to account. During the party’s period in opposition in the aftermath of World War II, Tories used the weekly meetings to berate Winston Churchill about his less-than-productive work rate.

During the tenure of former Prime Minister John Major, “The 22” came to embody the party’s opposition to the closer ties with Europe and the prospect of joining Europe’s single currency, the euro. But in 2003, it was arch-euroskeptic Iain Duncan Smith’s turn to feel its wrath -- he was ousted as Tory leader after colleagues submitted enough letters to prompt a leadership vote.

On coming to power, David Cameron tried and failed to dilute the influence of the committee by proposing to open up its membership. The move backfired, Brady was elected chairman and has held the job ever since. Cameron resigned after the U.K. voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum he called.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.