Conservative Party Leadership Elections: How Do They Work?

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UPDATED: 12th July 2022 with new information regarding rule changes made by the 1922 committee

With Boris Johnson stepping down as Party Leader (and therefore Prime Minister) the top spot at the Conservative Party has opened up.

We’ll be looking at the candidates in a separate article but for now, let’s take a look at the history of how the Conservative Party elected their leader (shocker: it was controversial!) and what the processes are in the modern era.

A Brief History Of The Conservative Leadership Contests

Prior to 1964, the Conservative Party had no formal process for electing a new leader. Essentially a few MPs stood forward, ministers would declare their backing for one of the candidates and then the favourite would be picked as the leader.

In 1963 though, an series of “odd” events occurred.

Then Prime Minister Harrold Macmillan had been rocked by a series of issues from rising unemployment and an economic downtown followed by “The Profumo Affair” where his Secretary of State for War was forced to resign after an affair with a woman with ties to a Russian agent was uncovered.

Towards the end of 1963, Macmillan became ill and was told he had terminal cancer (a misdiagnosis) so he tendered his resignation as Prime Minister and a leadership challenge began[1]Wikipedia: History of the Conservative Party (UK)).

There were four MPs who decided to stand: Deputy Prime Minister Rab Butler, Former Chancellor Reginald Maulding, Lord Hallisham and Lord Home.

No peer had been a sitting Prime Minister since 1895, and in 1923 King George V decided that any Peer wanting to stand as Prime Minister must renounce their seat in the House of Lords in order to take up a place in the House of Commons (that would also mean they’d need to obtain a seat as an MP by way of an election) so by 1963, it was an established fact that a PM candidate should be sitting in the House of Commons[2]Wikipedia: Alec Douglas-Home – Lord Hallisham (Leader of the House of Lords)[3]Wikipedia: Quintin Hogg, Baron Hailsham of St Marylebone and Lord Home (Foreign Secretary) weren’t even MPs.

A fierce leadership battle ensued which then lead to a stalemate between Butler and Maulding and it would seem that neither side would back down, nor were they able to increase their support in order to beat their opponent[4][BBC On This Day: 18th October 1963(

Soon, Home’s name was being widely mentioned as a solution to the problem as a “compromise” candidate – even though he had been publicly vocal about being reluctant to take up the post as it would mean giving up his peerage.

Macmillan took it upon himself to visit the Queen and advise her to appoint Alec Douglas-Home as the new Prime Minister, even though the majority of the Conservative Party did not back him and he did not appear to even want the role.

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This confused supporters of Butler who had believed that Macmillan was going to tell the Queen to appoint his deputy as Prime Minister.

Home renounced his peerage but only managed a year in office as he suffered defeat to Labour’s Harold Wilson in October 1964.

Following Home’s defeat, the Conservatives decided that they needed a formalised process for electing a new leader in order to avoid another “Macmillan-esque” u-turn (or backstabbing depending on how you look at it) occurring in the future.

The election process was published in February 1965[5]Wikipedia: 1965 Conservative Party leadership election and was agreed by the Parliamentary party.

The election was managed by the 1922 committee and the rules in place meant that in order to claim victory, a candidate must have a “absolute majority” with candidates being whittled down until one outright winner remains.

The system stayed in place until the mid-1970s when in was reviewed. It was then further overhauled in 2001 by William Hague in order to increase the role of the party membership in the election process[6]The Guardian: Explained: the Conservative leadership election.

How Did The New Voting System Work?

An MP who wants to stand for leader needs to have a proposer and a seconder.

The 1922 committee set a timetable for the contest with all nominations (with appropriate backing) being received by a specified time and date[7]Electoral Reform Society: How do Conservative Party leadership elections work?.

The Nominees then go through a series of votes where MPs vote for the person they would like to see as leader. If there are more than two candidates, the process is repeated with the lowest polling candidate expected to drop out after each round. When the candidates are whittled down to the final two, ballots are then sent out to the all members of the Conservative Party for them to have their vote (the change Hague introduced with his reforms).

However if there are two candidates remaining and one withdraws (as with Andrea Ledsome running against Theresa May in 2016 and then dropping out) the remaining candidate becomes the Leader without it having to go to a full membership vote.

2019 Leadership Election Voting Changes

Because of the large number of candidates that were standing in the 2019 leadership content (at least 10, but there were more before the rules had been changed compared to 5 in the 2016 leadership election), the 1922 committee declared that each nominee must have at least 8 backers and receive a minimum of 17 votes to stay on the ballot.

Note: For the 2022 leadership election, the number of minium votes in the first and subsequent rounds may change depending on the number of candidates. It looks as though the 8 backers figure still stands, instead of the previous 2 of proposer and seconder.

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Update: 12th July 2022L The 1922 committee have announced each candidate will need 20 named MPs as backers and will need 30 votes to progress past the first round.

This lead to 3 of the 10 MPs being eliminated in the first round[8]The Guardian: Tory leadership election: the full results (2019) and one withdrawal. The second ballot required a minimum of 33 votes, and subsequent ballots eliminated the lowest scoring candidate with no minimum voting level required.

The remaining two candidates (Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt in the case of the 2019 leadership vote) were then put on a ballot which was sent out to around 300,000 Conservative Party members with the two given time to travel around the country to campaign.

As of 2021, there were around 200,000 Conservative Party members after plunging to around 70,000 at one point[9]Independent: Tories hail big rise in party membership, because ‘everyone loves the prime minister’.

If this figure is accurate, it also means that under 0.3% of the UK population will be deciding who the next Prime Minister is (assuming the ballot goes out to the members and we don’t get a situation like 2016).

How Do You Become Eligible To Vote In A Conservative Leadership Contest?

Anyone can join the Conservative Party if you pay the fee of £25 (£5 if you’re under 26 or £15 if you’re in the Armed Forces) however you need to be a member for 3 months in order to qualify to vote in any Party Elections[10]Conservative Party Membership so you will probably miss out on being able to vote in the upcoming leadership election if it is fast-tracked by the 1922 Committee, as many think it will be.

So What Now?

We need to wait for the timetable to be set out by the 1922 committee which will lay out when nominations need to be in by and what the voting schedule will look like – this will depend on the number of candidates and how many are eliminated in each round if they don’t meet the minimum number of votes or withdraw.

Ironically, the 1922 are in the process of electing their own executive leadership at the moment and it’s unknown whether this will affect their ability to progress the Party leadership election while this is ongoing.

The 1922 elections close on Monday evening (11th July 2022) so nothing will probably be announced until later on the 12th or the 13th of July.

We’ll update you when we know more.


1 Wikipedia: History of the Conservative Party (UK))
2 Wikipedia: Alec Douglas-Home
3 Wikipedia: Quintin Hogg, Baron Hailsham of St Marylebone
4 [BBC On This Day: 18th October 1963(
5 Wikipedia: 1965 Conservative Party leadership election
6 The Guardian: Explained: the Conservative leadership election
7 Electoral Reform Society: How do Conservative Party leadership elections work?
8 The Guardian: Tory leadership election: the full results (2019)
9 Independent: Tories hail big rise in party membership, because ‘everyone loves the prime minister’
10 Conservative Party Membership
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