The Conservatives adopted their current system for electing and ejecting leaders in 1998. The party previously gave its MPs the exclusive right to choose leaders but after grassroots anger at the scandals and failures of John Major’s government in the 1990s, there were demands for democratisation. The new Tory opposition leader, William Hague, established a system whereby both party activists and MPs would have their say in selecting the leader.
A new procedure enabling confidence votes in sitting leaders was also established. Previously, Conservative MPs who wanted to remove a sitting leader had to organise a direct leadership challenge, as Michael Heseltine did in relation to Margaret Thatcher in 1990. The new system would split the processes of removing the old leader and choosing a new one. Leaders would no longer be formally “challenged” by rivals.
For the most part, leaders leave their posts after election defeats or when they have been pressured to resign (a few leave because of ill health and some die in post). On other occasions, a leader may wish to stay on but face pressure to go. In these circumstances, Conservative leaders may find themselves facing a confidence vote. The party’s rules decree that only MPs can call and participate in confidence votes, the rationale being that they are the people who work with the leader on a daily basis and must retain confidence in him or her for the party to function in parliament.
The confidence vote
A confidence vote is triggered when at least 15% of Conservative MPs request one by writing to the chairman of the party’s backbench 1922 committee. So with 316 Conservative MPs in parliament, it would take 48 letters to activate a confidence vote. The names of those writing letters are kept confidential. The chairman of the 1922 committee, currently Graham Brady, monitors the numbers of letters received but does not provide a running tally, as that could be hugely destabilising. Letters can remain on file indefinitely, although they may be withdrawn by those who sent them.
When the 15% threshold has been reached, the chairman of the 1922 committee announces that fact and sets out a timetable for a confidence vote, which would be expected to take place quickly. A secret ballot of Conservative MPs is then organised, with the option to express confidence or no confidence in the leader. The rules stipulate that the leader needs to win a simple majority of those MPs voting to win the ballot. If he or she does so, then the party cannot hold another confidence vote for a year, which offers some protection to the leader.
If the leader loses the vote, he or she is compelled to resign and is not permitted to contest the subsequent leadership election to choose a successor. The mechanism has been used once before, in 2003, when Tory MPs voted to remove Iain Duncan Smith as leader by 90 votes to 75.
There are doubts whether a leader who won a very narrow majority in a confidence vote could carry on – after all, it would be known that almost half of his/her MPs had no confidence in their leader. One way around this problem would be for the numbers of those voting not to be made public –- the rules refer to the chairman of the 1922 committee “declaring the result of a ballot” but do not specifically state that numbers must be released. However, such a move could prove contentious.
If the leader is removed in a confidence vote or resigns of their own volition, a full leadership contest takes place. Candidates must be Conservative MPs and be publicly proposed and seconded by two other MPs. If only one candidate is forthcoming, as was the case in 2003 after Michael Howard came forward, that candidate becomes leader without the need for a vote.
If three or more candidates are nominated, then a series of secret ballots takes place. Each MP can vote for one candidate and once the votes have been counted, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Candidates can voluntarily withdraw from the contest.
The process continues until only two candidates are left. Their names will then go forward to a postal ballot of the party’s estimated 100,000 individual members. If only two candidates entered the contest at the start, the parliamentary ballots are not required and the contest moves straight to the postal-ballot stage.
A candidate does not need to win a particular percentage of MPs’ votes, but just to finish in the top two. In theory, one candidate could win 75% of MPs’ votes in the final parliamentary ballot and the runner-up could win 15%, with the third candidate taking 10%, but the top two would still go through to the membership ballot.
Taking it to members
A series of hustings are organised in the country and there are likely to be televised debates too. To win the leadership, a candidate requires a simple majority of votes cast in the all-member ballot. As there are only two candidates, that is guaranteed to happen.
The parliamentary ballots can be completed quickly, usually within a week depending on the number of candidates. The all-member ballot takes longer, as ballots must be printed, posted to the members, hustings arranged and time set aside for ballots to be returned. In the leadership contests of 2001 and 2005, this stage of the process took about two months.
This delay is often held up as a disincentive to have leadership contests unless they are unavoidable. A governing party in particular can hardly afford to be out of action for that long. In practice, there are ways around the problem. Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal after finishing runner-up in the final parliamentary ballot in 2016 reflected the fact she was a long way behind Theresa May. Leadsom’s authority among MPs would have been damaged given her low support, even if she had won the membership ballot. The contest was therefore completed within a week.
The Conservatives’ leadership rules represent an attempt to square the need for leaders to enjoy the confidence of their MPs with contemporary demands for activist participation. The rules are sometimes criticised for allowing one group of actors – activists – to choose a leader and another group – MPs – to remove leaders. However, after two decades in existence, the party has found ways of making the rules work in practice.