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How does the UK Conservative leadership process work?

July 8, 2022

The race for a new leader of the Conservative Party is already underway after Boris Johnson fired the starting gun by announcing his resignation. But how does the somewhat secretive process work?

Conservative Party member wearing a rosette
The vote is a two-stage process, and the exact rules can vary each time aroundImage: Axel Heimken/dpa/picture alliance

The election of a new UK Conservative Party leader is usually a fraught affair, with a string of twists as the field is whittled down.

It's quite an unusual process, with a few hundred Conservative lawmakers deciding on which two final candidates should be decided by thousands of party members.

Stage One: Conservative MPs narrow the field

First of all, a candidate must secure enough nominations from fellow members of parliament. The number required can change and is announced for each contest by the powerful 1922 Committee, which organizes the process.

Indeed, while the principles of the contest are set out in the party constitution, detailed rules are not available in a public document. The committee can make changes as is sees fit.

In the first stage, Conservative members of parliament — of whom there are 358 at present — choose the nominees via successive rounds of voting. The multistage nature of the contest, with the bottom candidates eliminated each time, gives plenty of scope for pacts and plots as it proceeds.

The length of time for this varies. Last time around in 2019, it took just under two weeks from the opening of nominations to the final two being chosen. That time, there were 10 candidates and six rounds of voting.

Boris Johnson - gone, but not completely

Stage Two: Membership decides from final pair

When only two candidates remain, the contest shifts to the second stage, with ballot papers sent to grassroots party members. Last time around, some 160,000 members were sent voting documents. This postal ballot takes place over a few weeks.

Last time, Boris Johnson faced the then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, with Johnson claiming 92,153 votes to Hunt's 46,656.

If only one candidate is successfully nominated, they become leader, as was the case with Theresa May. However, this could — under certain circumstances — be subject to a vote by members to ratify the result.

Because the Conservative Party can command a majority in the House of Commons, the new leader would then be asked by UK monarch Queen Elizabeth II to form a government.

The process has garnered criticism when previous Conservative prime ministers have been replaced. It essentially limits the choice of a new prime minister to a small number of elderly, affluent voters, when the party is in power.

UK Labour Party leader elections follow a different process, but also require no general election for a new prime minister if the party is in office.

Edited by Jenipher Camino Gonzalez

Richard Connor Reporting on stories from around the world, with a particular focus on Europe — especially Germany.