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Explainer

Conservative Party leadership contests

The next Conservative Party leadership election will begin in the coming weeks.

Outgoing UK prime minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street with a speech with his wife after his party was defeated in the general election.
With Rishi Sunak’s announcement on 5 July 2024 that he would stand down as leader of the party, the 2024 Conservative Party leadership contest unofficially began.

When is the next Conservative Party leadership contest?

With Rishi Sunak’s announcement on 5 July 2024 that he would stand down as leader of the party, the 2024 Conservative Party leadership contest unofficially began. The race will begin in full when the 1922 committee sets the rules for the election, and the date of key votes.

When was the last Conservative Party leadership contest?

The last full election for the leadership of the Conservative Party (involving MPs and members) was held between 13 July and 5 September 2022. Liz Truss was elected leader with the support of 57.4% of voting members, defeating Rishi Sunak. Truss replaced Boris Johnson as prime minister on 6 September 2022.

Following Liz Truss’ resignation in October 2022, Rishi Sunak was elected as the new leader unopposed, as he was the only candidate who met the threshold of 100 nominations. Sunak replaced Truss as prime minister on 25 October 2022.

How does the Conservative Party elect a leader?

The first stage of the election is managed by the Executive of the 1922 Committee – the committee of backbench Conservative MPs – who set the rules for the first stage of the leadership election in consultation with the Conservative Party board. These rules are not publicly available and are announced anew at the beginning of each contest when the chair of the 1922 Committee sets out the timetable for election.

To enter the contest, candidates – who must be Conservative MPs – must be nominated by other Conservative MPs. The threshold for nomination has varied at each successive election: in 2019, candidates needed just eight nominees, while in October 2022, would-be candidates required 100 supporters.

The field of nominated candidates is then whittled down through successive ballots of Conservative MPs until only two candidates remain. At each ballot, the candidate receiving the lowest number of votes is eliminated. In addition – particular during the early stages of balloting – candidates may be eliminated if they fail to meet a pre-declared threshold of votes. For instance, in 2019 candidates needed to receive 17 votes in the first round and 33 votes in the second round in order to proceed.

The two remaining candidates are then put to a vote of the entire Conservative party membership in a process set down in the party constitution. The candidate receiving more than 50% of the vote is elected leader.

If only one candidate is nominated for the leadership then that candidate is automatically declared elected without the need for a ballot of MPs or a vote of the membership. If the party board chooses, this election may be ratified by a full vote of a party members. 7 Constitution of the Conservative Party, January 2021, schedule 2, paragraph 7  This option for a confirmatory vote has never been exercised.

A chart from the Institute for Government showing the vote share won by candidates at each stage of each Conservative party leadership contest since the 1998 rule changes.

What happens if a Conservative Party leader resigns the leadership?

When a Conservative leader resigns, this triggers a contest for a new party leader. The outgoing leader is not eligible to stand in the ensuing election.

If the resigning leader is prime minister, they are normally expected to stay in post until a new leader is elected, as Theresa May did in 2019 and David Cameron did in 2016. The UK has de facto caretaker governments during general elections but not during leadership challenges. During a leadership contest, the government continues to function without change. This caused some controversy in 2022, when Boris Johnson remained as prime minister for the duration of the summer leadership contest despite having previously faced the resignation of dozens of ministers.

A resigning Conservative party leader could choose to resign as prime minister at the same time, although this would be unprecedented. In this case, a new prime minister would be appointed by the monarch. As the UK does not recognise the concept of a temporary or interim prime minister, they would possess the full powers of the office. The new prime minister would be expected to resign once a new party leader is elected.

How do Conservative MPs initiate a leadership challenge?

A vote of no confidence in the leader is held if 15% of Conservative MPs (currently 52 MPs) write to the chair of the 1922 Committee to request one. This is entirely distinct from a vote of no confidence in the government, which is a parliamentary vote involving MPs of all parties.

Conservative MPs then vote in a secret ballot, declaring their support for and against the leader. If a majority of votes are cast against the leader, then they are removed from the leadership and an election is held. The defeated leader cannot stand in the leadership election. If they win then they remain in office and a new confidence vote cannot be triggered for 12 months.

The timetable for a confidence vote is decided by the chair of the 1922 Committee in consultation with the party leader. The vote can happen very quickly: the 2018 vote of no confidence in Theresa May was held on 12 December, the day after the threshold was reached. May won the vote 200–117 – a majority of 83 votes.

How has the Conservative Party elected leaders in the past?

Before 1965, leaders of the Conservative Party ‘emerged’ after discussion among MPs – rather than via an election. 8 House of Commons library, ‘Leadership elections Conservative party’, 25 October 2022, pp. 28-31

In 1965, then party leader Alec Douglas-Home introduced a process for Conservative MPs to elect the leader. Candidates could win in the first round by obtaining a majority of the vote, provided they were 15% clear of the second-placed candidate. If no-one managed this, the election would continue to further rounds, where a candidate could win by simply winning a majority of votes cast. Candidates could enter the second ballot without having contested the first ballot.

Between 1975 and 1991, annual elections were held, allowing sitting leaders to be challenged. These were usually uncontested, but Margaret Thatcher was challenged for the leadership in both 1989 and 1990.

The current rules were introduced in 1998 by William Hague, then leader of the Conservative Party, following the party’s 1997 general election defeat. The main change was to introduce a ballot of the membership.

a chart from the Institute for Government showing the vote share won by candidates at each stage of each Conservative party leadership contest between 1965 and 1997.

Are there any other ways to initiate a leadership challenge against a Conservative Party leader?

There is no other formal method by which to initiate a leadership challenge. However, there are ways for the rest of the party to express a lack of confidence in the leader.

The National Conservative Convention (NCC) is a body representing the voluntary wing of the party, made up of association chairs, area and regional officers and specialised groups (such as Young Conservatives and the Conservative Women’s Organisation). In April 2019, more than 65 Conservative Association Chairmen signed a petition calling for an extraordinary general meeting of the NCC - in which concerns about Theresa May’s leadership of the Conservative Party were raised.

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