How does a Conservative Leadership Election work and what happened in 2022?

The resignation of a sitting PM means that a Conservative Leadership Election is actually choosing a new Prime Minister.

Conservative Leadership elections take place relatively regularly. However, because of Britain’s parliamentary democracy it is often the case that a Conservative Leadership election will also essentially mean an election for the position of Prime Minister. This was the case in 2016 when Theresa May succeeded David Cameron and happened again in 2022 when Boris Johnson resigned following a series of scandals. So, how does a Conservative Leadership election work and what happened in the 2022 iteration?

Why were leadership elections introduced?

Alec Douglas-Home’s appointment as PM led to a call for a more transparent process for choosing Conservative Leaders.

Leadership elections within the Conservative Party have taken place since the 1960s and were first used in 1965 when Edward Heath was elected leader as successor to Alec Douglas-Home. This followed the controversial appointment of Douglas-Home as leader. In 1963 Harold MacMillan was ill and decided to step down as Prime Minister. At this time the new leader of the party was simply decided by party elders who would find a consensus on who the best candidate was. It was widely expected that Rab Butler, the First Secretary of State, would become Prime Minister. He was believed to be the person who could ‘best command the confidence of the House of Commons’. However, the party was deeply split and the succession became something of a national soap opera. Eventually MacMillan advised the Queen to appoint Douglas-Home. This process led to the Conservative Party moving to an election format to choose future leaders.

When are leadership elections held?

A leadership election is currently held in the Conservative Party for two reasons:

1. If the current leader resigns or dies

Cameron resigned on the very morning of the Brexit Referendum.

If the current leader resigns or dies and leadership election has to take place as soon as reasonably possible. This is most likely to happen following an election, but sometimes happens in other circumstances. For example, a Conservative Leadership election was held in 2016 when David Cameron resigned on the morning of the Brexit Referendum.

2. If the current leader loses a motion of no confidence from Conservative MPs

Iain Duncan-Smith resigned as Conservative Leader after losing a confidence vote in 2003.

There is mechanism in the Conservative Party to ensure that the current leader has the support of the parliamentary party. This can be tested via a confidence motion. Currently Conservative rules require 15% of Conservative MPs to write a letter to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee indicating they no longer have confidence in the party leader. This triggers a vote of the entire parliamentary party. This rule was introduced in 1998 and was last used in June 2022 when Boris Johnson survived a confidence vote by 211 to 148.

What previous leadership elections have their been?

Since 1965 the following leadership elections have taken place in the Conservative Party:

1965 – Edward Heath won the first ever leadership election with the support of 50.4% of MPs following the resignation of Alec-Douglas Home.

Ted Heath’s strategic use of a leadership election backfired spectacularly.

1975 – Margaret Thatcher became the first female leader of a major UK political party after winning the support of 52.9% of MPs following the second ballot. The election happened after Heath called for one to assert his authority. However, having failed to win on the first ballot he resigned as leader.

1989 – Following a difficult period in office, which include huge disquiet over the Poll Tax, Thatcher was opposed by a backbench MP Sir Anthony Meyer. Whilst Thatcher won 90.5% of MPs, Meyer became a stalking horse candidate, showing the weakness of Thatcher that other candidates could later exploit.

1990 – It was inevitable that Thatcher would face a leadership challenge in 1990. Not only did the debate over the Poll Tax carry on, but Thatcher’s party was increasingly divided over Europe. The infamous resignation of Geoffrey Howe on 1st November 1990 precipitated the election:

Thatcher won on the first ballot, but did not meet the rule of having a 15% margin over Michael Heseltine. Whilst Thatcher originally intended to stand in the second ballot she was persuaded against it by her Cabinet and subsequently John Major won the election.

1995 – In 1995 there was increasing speculation over a leadership challenge to John Major because he was having serious problems controlling his own party. In particular, the party was split over the issue of Europe. It seemed likely that there would be a leadership challenge to John Major at some point.

John Redwood was the only Conservative MP to “put up” in 1995 – but was soundly beaten by John Major.

John Major took the radical step of pre-empting this. On the 22nd June 1995 he resigned as leader of the Conservative Party, telling his rebellious backbenchers to “put up or shut up:

In response, only one MP, John Redwood, did ‘put up’. Other far more prominent MPs, like Ken Clarke, Michael Portillo or Michael Heseltine, decided against running. Major won the vote comfortably, 66.3% to 27.1% and in doing so, re-established his authority and carried on as Prime Minister until losing the 1997 General Election in Labour’s 179 seat landslide.

2001 – After William Hague had failed to make a significant dent in Tony Blair’s majority in the 2001 General Election (it only dropped from 179 to 166) a leadership election was held in which Iain Duncan-Smith became leader.

2003 – Iain Duncan-Smith struggled from the start as Conservative Leader and his perceived lack of charisma was in stark contrast to Tony Blair. In October 2003 he lost a vote of confidence by 90 to 75. He was succeeded by Michael Howard.

IDS’s lack of charisma was noted at the 2003 Tory Party Conference – even though he was trying to tackle it.

2005 – Despite bringing Blair’s majority down to 66 in the 2005 General Election Michael Howard resigned as Conservative Leader. In the following contest David Cameron, who had only become an MP in 2001, won the leadership election.

2016 – Following the Brexit vote on 23rd June 2016 David Cameron immediately announced his intention to resign. Five candidates entered the ballot but it never went to party members as Andrea Leadsom withdrew, allowing Theresa May to assume the leadership on the 11th July, much earlier than previously expected.

2019 – Following Theresa May’s resignation in 2019 a leadership election took place that saw Boris Johnson comfortably defeat Jeremy Hunt in the vote of party members.

What happens in a Conservative Leadership Election?

Between 1965 and 2001 Conservative Leaders were chosen entirely by MPs. However, the current process is as follows:

  1. If a leadership election takes place, candidates must be nominated by twenty other MPs to be placed on the ballot.
  2. MPs vote in a series of ballots until only two candidates remain.
  3. The final two candidates are put to a national vote of all Conservative Party Members..

Who stood in the 2022 Conservative Leadership Election and what happened?

Boris Johnson faced three main tests as PM, one he expected, one he received and another he invited.

As Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced three great challenges: Brexit, COVID and Partygate. On Brexit he could claim to have achieved his campaign pledge to ‘Get Brexit Done’ because on the 31st January 2020 Britain formally left the European Union. His second challenge, COVID, was entirely not of his making and his record on COVID is arguable. He of course would claim that the roll-out of the vaccine saved countless lives and that this is his greatest legacy on COVID. On Partygate, of course, the blame must be taken by him. Trust in the Prime Minister was already damaged by his attempts to protect Owen Patterson from a lobbying scandal when a slew of scandals emerged relating to illegal COVID gatherings and the Prime Minister became the first sitting PM in History to receive a criminal reprimand via a Fixed Penalty Notice. After this, the revelations that he had promoted an MP he had known to have been tangled up in a sexual harassment scandal were simply the straw which broke the camels back. Therefore, under increasing pressure, the Prime Minister resigned on the 8th July 2022.

In total there were eight candidates who received the support of at least 20 MPs and entered the ballots. These took place almost daily until just two remained:

Penny Mordaunt had been an early favourite and was one of the early front-runners. However, on the 5th Ballot she struggled with the votes of Tom Tugendhadt and Kemi Badenoch moving towards Liz Truss.

When the decisions went to the 172,437 Conservative voters it felt like there was only going to be one decision made. Liz Truss led polling of Conservative voters from the start:

(C) Guardian

Lurking over the entire contest was the notion that neither Truss nor Sunak were really the first choice of many and that most Conservative voters would rather seemingly rather see Boris Johnson remain in power rather than choose either.

Despite her New Right tendencies, Thatcher raised taxes in 1981.

Whilst the election seemed likely to only have one outcome from the start, it didn’t stop it being a vociferous campaign. Both sides disagreed, particularly on taxation. Truss argued that Britain needed to cut taxes straight away in order to stimulate the economy and encourage economic growth. She pledged to immediately reverse the increase in National Insurance that Sunak had bought in as Chancellor. Conversely, Sunak argued that cutting taxes now was irresponsible and that tackling inflation had to be the the prime target for the new PM and that cutting taxes risked further inflationary pressures. Sunak instead said that he would cut taxes later when the country could better afford it. It is worth remembering that even though Truss has moulded her economic message (and even her broader image) on Thatcher, even Thatcher raised taxes in 1981 to tackle inflation before bringing in tax cuts when inflation was under better control.

In the end, Truss’ economic vision won out. However, whilst she won the election, it was actually by the smallest margin since the popular vote had been introduced in 2001 and was much closer than the pool suggested it would be:

On becoming Prime Minister on the 6th September 2022 Truss faces the task of doing something to bring consumer and business energy prices under control. On the weekend before the election she pledged to take decisive action within a week. What action she will take, and how she will pay for it, remains very much to be seen.

Article Summary

When the Partygate scandal began it became increasingly likely that Boris Johnson may have to resign, or may be removed, as Prime Minister. Either of these eventualities would lead to a Conservative Leadership election, something that has taken place in some form for choosing new leaders since 1965. Under the current system Conservative MPs are responsible for nominating MPs and then ballot voting to present a remaining two to the Conservative Party membership. In 2022, whilst Rishi Sunak had the support of far more MPs, Liz Truss was able win the support of more party members and therefore become the new Conservative Party Leader and, consequently, Prime Minister.

Key Terms

Parliamentary Democracy – A system in which the government is formed from the legislature and requires the support of the legislature to continue governing.

Brexit Referendum – The referendum that took place in 2016 in which 52% of British voters voted to leave the European Union.

Vote of No Confidence – A vote to test whether a person or government still has the confidence of the group it is formed from or represents.

Poll Tax – A new tax introduced in 1989 to replace the Rates. It was extremely controversial because it was not a progressive tax and instead saw a flat rate of tax for all adults.

Partygate – A series of scandals relating to parties that took place on Government buildings whilst the country was in lockdown due to COVID-19.

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