How do Conservative Party leadership elections work?

Charley Jarrett,

Posted on the 5th July 2016

(Updated for 2019 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 remaining two candidates are then presented to the party membership, who vote – on a one member one vote basis – for their preferred candidate from the shortlist of two.

Unlike Labour leader contenders, who generally need 20% of the Parliamentary Labour Party to be nominated as a candidate, in 2016, Conservatives candidates needed only to be publicly nominated by a proposer and a seconder (this has now been changed). In 2016, five candidates were duly nominated before the deadline.

The 1922 Committee (the Conservative backbench committee) set out the timetable for the contest. First, Tory MPs voted for which candidate they would most like to be the leader.  In 2016, the candidate with the fewest votes – Liam Fox – was eliminated in this first ballot, with Stephen Crabb withdrawing.  Candidates who are eliminated or withdraw are then free – if they so wish – to urge their supporters to back another candidate. In 2016, both Fox and Crabb backed Theresa May.  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.

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 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! and prevent vote splitting with the Brexit party today).

A faster and easier system would be for MPs to run an STV election to select the final two to go to the membership. There are of course 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 first STV 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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