House of Commons Library

Leadership Elections: Conservative Party

Published Thursday, August 8, 2019

This House of Commons Library briefing paper sets out the current rules for election of a Conservative Party leader, and the background to their introduction.

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The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was elected leader of the Conservative Party on 23 July 2019 and confirmed as Prime Minister the following day. Theresa May had announced her intention to stand down as leader of the Conservative Party on Friday 24 May and formally resigned as Prime Minister on 24 July 2019.

This briefing paper sets out the current rules on Conservative Party leadership elections and the background to their introduction in 1998. It sets out details of the previous elections held under the current rules. It also includes brief details of the pre-1998 rules.

The current system of electing the Leader of the Conservative Party consists of two stages:

  • Conservative Members of Parliament select a choice of two candidates to present to the membership of the whole Party;
  • Party members vote, on a "one member one vote" basis, for their preferred candidate from a shortlist of two.

The rules for valid nomination of candidates and the process for reducing the field down to the two, should there be more than two candidates, are determined by the Executive of the 1922 Committee in consultation with the Conservative Party Board. In the event of a leadership election the Chairman of the 1922 Committee will announce the procedure to be followed. The broad principles are set out in the Conservative Party Constitution but not the detailed rules.

On Tuesday 4 June 2019, the 1922 Committee confirmed the detailed rules for the forthcoming leadership election. Party members would still vote for their preferred candidate from a shortlist of two.

The parliamentary party determined that shortlist in the following way and according to the following timetable:

Monday 10 June (5pm) 

Nominations close

  • Any MP standing has to be supported by eight other colleagues.

Thursday 13 June            

First ballot of Conservative MPs

  • Candidates need at least 17 votes to proceed to the next round of balloting.
  • If all candidates receive at least 17 votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated.

Tuesday 18 June              

Second ballot of Conservative MPs

  • Candidates need at least 33 votes to proceed to the next round of balloting.
  • If all candidates receive at least 33 votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated.

Wednesday 19 June/Thursday 20 June     

Subsequent rounds of balloting of Conservative MPs

  • On each occasion, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated

On Thursday 20 June the fifth ballot of MPs reduced the field to two candidates, Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson. The Conservative Party membership of approximately 160,000 members will now take part in a postal ballot to determine who will be the next leader. 

From 22 June                    

Final two candidates participate in hustings.

23 July                                 

The winner is announced.

Background information

A leadership contest can be triggered in two ways:

  • If 15% of Conservative MPs write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee saying they no longer have confidence in the leader of the Conservative Party, or
  • if the current leader resigns.

A leader losing the confidence of the Parliamentary party is not allowed to participate in the resulting leadership election.

The appendices to the briefing include details of Conservative Party leaders since 1900, election results from 1965-1997, Chairs of the 1922 Committee since 1923, and the broad principles of leadership elections as set out in the Conservative Party Constitution.

Before 1965, leaders of the Conservative Party were not elected, but “emerged” after discussion among Conservative MPs. In 1965, the Party introduced a procedure for the leader to be elected by a ballot of Conservative MPs. Edward Heath was the first leader elected under the 1965 rules.

The current rules for electing the leader of the Conservative Party were introduced in 1998. They were initially set out in principle in the Conservative document, The Fresh Future. This document formed the basis for reforms to the organisation of the Conservative Party following its defeat in the 1997 general election.

In 2005, then leader Michael Howard, announced his intention to resign as party leader. He indicated that before he stood down he wanted to oversee changes to the Party’s process of electing a new leader. This would have given a role for the Party’s National Convention but left the final decision with Conservative MPs. The proposals were not taken up and David Cameron was elected under the existing rules, defeating David Davis in a ballot of the Party’s membership.

On 24 June 2016, the day after the UK’s referendum on its continued membership of the European Union, David Cameron announced his resignation. He stated that in his view, the aim should be to have a new Prime Minister in place by the start of the Conservative Party conference in October 2016.

Theresa May was confirmed as leader of the Conservative Party on 13 July 2016 after the a leadership contest. There were initially five candidates but after two ballots of Conservative MPs all but Theresa May had been eliminated or withdrawn and Mrs May was then confirmed as Party leader without the need for a ballot of Party members.

On 12 December 2018, Sir Graham Brady, current Chairman of the 1922 Committee, confirmed that he had received the required number of letters to initiate a vote of no confidence in Theresa May. The ballot was held later that day with the result declared just after 9pm in Committee Room 14. Theresa May won the vote by 200 votes to 117. She could not be challenged for 12 months.

Commons Briefing papers SN01366

Author: Neil Johnston

Topic: Political parties

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