How do Conservative Party leadership elections work?

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 5th July 2016

(Updated for October 2022)

Historically there weren’t elections for the leader of the Conservative party, but, following the machinations surrounding the appointment of Sir Alec Douglas-Home in 1963, elections among the MPs were brought in, in 1965. In 1998, the system of leadership elections was altered so that Conservative MPs choose a shortlist of two candidates through a series of ballots.

The 1922 Committee (the Conservative backbench committee) set out the timetable for the contest. Every few days a ballot is held, with the candidate with the least support eliminated after each vote. Candidates who are eliminated or withdraw are then free to urge their supporters to back another candidate. The final two candidates are then presented to the party membership, who vote – on a one member one vote basis. The exact rules can be changed though, and have for the recent contests.

The 2016 contest

In 2016, Conservatives candidates needed only to be nominated by a proposer and a seconder (this has now been changed). In 2016, five candidates were duly nominated before the deadline.

In 2016, the candidate with the fewest votes – Liam Fox – was eliminated in this first ballot, with Stephen Crabb withdrawing. A few days later, the process was repeated with the remaining three candidates. Michael Gove lost, resulting in a Leadsom vs May final.

Usually, the two candidates with the highest vote would then be featured on a ballot paper to be printed and posted to the roughly 130,000 Conservative Party members who have been members for three months. But in 2016, Andrea Leadsom withdrew, leaving Theresa May to become Prime Minister without a ballot of the members.

The 2019 contest

In 2019 the rules were changed due to the high number of candidates who put themselves forward. The number of proposers needed to get on the ballot was upped from two to eight MPs, and minimum support was added to each ballot.

In the 2019 contest candidates needed at least 17 votes to pass the first ballot – if all candidates receive at least 17 votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. The second ballot had a cut-off of 33 votes, with subsequent ballots excluding the lowest scoring candidate. Once a shortlist of two candidates was reached, party members got to vote for their preferred candidate.

The first round saw Esther McVey, Mark Harper and Andrea Leadsom eliminated and Matt Hancock withdrawing. The second ballot saw Dominic Raab eliminated, the third – Rory Stewart, the fourth – Sajid Javid and the fifth – Michael Gove. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt went through to the members’ vote which Boris won on 66.4%.

The July-September 2022 Contest

In an effort to speed up the the competition, for 2022 the number of backers that a candidate needs to get on the ballot has been increased to 20, and the cut-off for the first round is now 30 votes. After this, a series of ballots will be held with the lowest scoring candidate removed in each round.

Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordant, Liz Truss, Jeremy Hunt, Nadhim Zahawi, Tom Tugandhat, Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman all received the 20 nominations needed to stand. In the first round, Jeremy Hunt won 18 votes and Nadhim Zahawi won 25 so both failed to reach the threshold of 30 votes and were knocked out of the contest. In the later rounds the least popular candidate was excluded. In the second round this was Suella Braverman, then Tom Tugenhat in round 3, Kemi Badenoch in round 4, then Penny Mordaunt in round 5. Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss will go to the membership ballot.

The October 2022 Contest

The second Conservative Party leadership election of 2022 was triggered by the resignation of Liz Truss after just 44 days in office. Keen to avoid a prolonged contest as was seen in the summer candidates were required to obtain 100 Conservative MP backers before they could go to a wider party membership ballot. If more than two candidates were nominated MPs would hold a ballot to eliminate one before holding an ‘indicative vote’ of the final two before going to the wider conservative membership in a final vote.

Only two MPs publicly declared their candidacy, Penny Mordaunt and Rishi Sunak, both of whom were unsuccessful candidates during the July-September Leadership election of 2022. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, had unofficially thrown his hat into the ring and was attracting support from MPs. Despite claiming to achieve the required backing from MPs, Johnson declared that he would not be running for in the party leadership election the night before candidates were required to officially state their intention to stand.

When nominations closed only Sunak had over 100 nominations with Mordaunt having bowed out of the competition minutes before the deadline. As the sole candidate Rishi Sunak became leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister unopposed.

Intrigue and tactical voting

The system is ripe for intrigue and tactical voting. Given the two electorates, Conservative Party MPs may feel inclined to attempt to shape the members’ ballot on the basis of how they expect members to react to the two candidates on the ballot. For instance, in 2001, there is evidence that supporters of Iain Duncan Smith tactically voted for Ken Clarke in order to knock Michael Portillo off the ballot, feeling (rightly) that the members would reject Clarke’s Europhile views.

MPs could also pretend to support a candidate to generate a false sense of security and encourage their supporters to misjudge their tactical votes. This is perhaps a disadvantage when compared to a system where rankings occur on a single ballot, as in the Alternative Vote system, where voters have less chance to mull on the results of each round and predict which way their colleagues’ votes will split.

Although it features different electorates, the electoral system is a little like France’s two-round system combined with the Alternative Vote.  (The Conservatives use a similar system when selecting candidates.)  Moderately humorous, considering the Conservatives were so vociferously opposed to AV (a system which would have seen their majority increase by eight in 2015!).

Don’t the Conservatives support First Past the Post?

It is ironic that the Conservative Party supports First Past the Post for public elections, recently imposing it in Mayoral contests for instance, yet don’t use it for their own contest.

Attempts made to speed up the contest in 2019 and 2022 by making ad hoc rules changes, highlight the enthusiasm for electoral system design among MPs, but also their refusal to listen to experts in the field. Considering the electorate already know the candidates personally, a faster and easier system would be for MPs to run a single STV election to select the final two to go to the membership.

You could argue there are benefits to having a campaign with a limited number of candidates, as it gives each candidate the space to make their case. The answer could be to have a STV ‘primary’ ballot to get the number of candidates down to four or five, followed by a second ballot a week or two later to get the final two. But where would be the backstabbing, intrigue-filled fun in that…

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