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The history of the choice of Conservative Party leaders shows a progression from choice by an elite via choice by MPs to choice by party members. Even so, the parliamentary party retains, by contrast with the Labour Party, a dominant role in choosing the leader. The criterion of who is best placed to unify the party remains of importance, but is supplemented by two other criteria: who is best placed to win the next general election and who is the more genuinely Conservative of the various candidates. The Liz Truss premiership of 2022, however, seemed to cast doubt on the efficacy of Conservative leadership election rules.
Democratising the party
Until the 1960s, the Conservatives did not select their leader by anything so vulgar as a vote. The best leader was seen to be the one who could unify the party and was not ‘divisive’. Such a leader might not necessarily be the person who would be chosen by a first past the post ballot. What was crucially important was to avoid a split. R. A. Butler, when he lost out to Lord Home in 1963, did not contest the decision because ‘the story of Sir Robert Peel splitting the Tory Party was for me the supremely unforgettable political lesson of history… I could never do the same thing”.
The controversy after the appointment of Lord Home persuaded the Conservatives to adopt an electoral procedure to choose their leader. To make sure the eventual leader enjoyed majority support amongst MPs, the views of those outside Parliament would be sought before MPs balloted rather than after. These could easily be ignored, as they were when Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1975 despite Conservative Party members favouring Edward Heath and in 1990 preferred Margaret Thatcher to Michael Heseltine.
By 1998, the Conservatives were more or less compelled to give the membership a vote in leadership elections, as it was the model employed by both the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Under the current rules, if a vacancy has more than two candidates, they are whittled down to two by Conservative MPs, with party members then deciding which of the two becomes leader. The presumption was that either candidate would be acceptable to the parliamentary party, even if not their first choice.
The Conservative Party’s process stemmed from its constitutional position as fundamentally a parliamentary party. The party outside Parliament was seen as ‘a handmaid to the party, [rather] than to usurp the functions of party leadership’. Where Labour MPs could have foisted upon them a leader such as Jeremy Corbyn, who had the support of only a small minority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the Conservative Party would ensure MPs could eliminate unsuitable candidates.
Until 1975, there was no institutional means of removing a Conservative leader who had outstayed his welcome. In that year, annual elections for the leadership were instituted, although until 1989 no one other than the leader was nominated. In 1998 the rules changed, to institute what was in effect a recall mechanism. A vacancy would be brought about once 15 per cent of Conservative MPs had written letters to the chair of the 1922 Committee and a subsequent ballot showed that the leader had lost the confidence of Conservative MPs.
Because it is now easier to remove a Conservative leader, it is perhaps no coincidence that three leaders have been removed in the past four years. The rules for Conservative leadership elections confirm a previous convention that ‘the Leader leads and the party follows, except when the party decides not to follow, then the Leader ceases to be Leader.’
Choosing Conservative leaders
Since the introduction of elections, two other considerations have emerged: who is best placed to win and who is more genuinely Conservative, usually interpreted as being more right-wing and eurosceptic.
These concerns have shaped all of the leadership elections since the introduction of a democratic process. In 1965, Edward Heath was seen as more right-wing than his rival Reginald Maudling. But by 1975, he had failed to win three out of four general elections. Furthermore, his adoption of interventionist policies now meant Margaret Thatcher was clearly the more right-wing candidate. In 1990, John Major was seen as less divisive than the ‘corporatist’ and interventionist Michael Heseltine. Kenneth Clarke was defeated in 1997 and 2001 by William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith respectively, in both cases due to concerns amongst the membership about his support for the European single currency. In 2005, David Cameron appeared both more competent and more electorally appealing than David Davis. In 2019, Boris Johnson, a Brexiteer, was seen as more popular amongst voters than Jeremy Hunt, a Remainer, who he defeated easily.
In 2022, despite not having voted to leave the EU, Liz Truss succeeded in projecting herself as the repository of the true hopes of Brexiteers. This entailed a commitment to the belief that it will bring rapid dividends, which should not be suppressed by conventional economic thinking. Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, was handicapped by having been Chancellor and being required to make difficult decisions during the Covid crisis.
Liz Truss won the leadership because she appreciated that winning over the membership required not detailed policy proposals, but the creation of a mood. Where Sunak created a mood of sober realism, she created a mood of optimism, arguing that Britain could easily cope with any economic difficulties and that Brexit could bring rapid dividends.
The Liz Truss premiership
Liz Truss rapidly discovered that creating a mood in the campaign was very different from achieving success in government. Her mini-budget caused the markets to take fright. Despite the rules providing that she could not be formally challenged for a year by the Executive, a number of letters of no confidence were sent in, resulting in her resignation.
Few Conservative MPs wanted another seven-week campaign. The debacle of her premiership led many to seek to reduce, or exclude altogether, the members from future leadership elections but the party’s constitutional rules meant this would not be easy. The parliamentary stage of the leadership election, however, could be changed by Executive of the 1922 Committee, and they did so in three respects: raising the threshold for nominations to ensure there could not be more than three candidates; conducting an indicative vote of Conservative MPs between the top two candidates; and concluding the election within eight days through an expedited online vote of party members if necessary.
In the event, no election was needed, as it became clear Rishi Sunak had secured the support of a majority of MPs and his rivals withdrew before a vote. Liz Truss resigned having been Prime Minister for just forty-nine days; letters of no confidence were sent to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee and led to her resignation. Rishi Sunak replaced her as Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister, and 2022 will always be remembered as the year of three Prime Ministers.