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Grassroots Tories will have a huge role to play in choosing their next leader - here's how the contest works

Following Theresa May’s departure, how will the Conservative Party choose its leader?

Favourite for the leadership Boris Johnson.
Favourite for the leadership Boris Johnson.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

CONSERVATIVE PARTY MEMBERS, following Theresa May’s announcement today of her resignation, could prove crucial in electing the next British prime minister. 

The current rules were introduced in 1998, after the landslide victory of Tony Blair in 1997 forced the Conservative Party into a significant period of reflection and reform.

The rules for electing a party leader see Conservative MPs select a choice of two candidates, who are then put to party members who can choose their next leader in a vote.  

In each round of voting among MPs, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is knocked out until only two remain.

The length of the contest and other procedures are decided by the 18-person executive of party’s powerful 1922 Committee, which is made up of all Tory backbench MPs and currently chaired by Graham Brady.

We can expect the exact rules and timetable to be announced in the coming days. In 2016, for instance, each candidate had to be nominated by two other MPs. 

How Theresa became PM

When Theresa May was elected leader in July 2016, following David Cameron’s resignation in the wake of the Brexit referendum, members did not end up receiving a vote.

Instead, after two ballots of MPs, all May’s competitors had been either eliminated or withdrawn. 

In the contest, May competed with a crowded field that included Liam Fox, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom. Boris Johnson was notably absent from the contest, having dropped out of the race when Gove announced he was running. 

The withdrawal of Leadsom came following an interview where she suggested that being a mother gave her a greater stake in the future of British society compared to May – remarks that prompted widespread condemnation.

In 2005, there was a vote among members. Following two ballots, David Davis (who more recently emerged as Brexit Secretary following the referendum before resigning in July 2018) and David Cameron were the two candidates to face party members and Cameron won with 68% of the vote to lead the party and become leader of the opposition. 

Today, with so many MPs vying for the leadership position, it’s likely that the Conservative party’s 124,000 members will ultimately end up deciding who the next British prime minister is.

History lesson 

The Conservative Party has not always given members such a significant say in leadership selection and have had a number of different systems for electing a leader since the end of the the Second World War. 

An election process was introduced following the party’s defeat at the 1964 general election. However, it remained tightly controlled by Tory MPs. Between 1965 and 1997, the Conservatives used a system of successive ballots designed to maintain as much parliamentary party control as possible and to encourage MPs to elect a candidate who enjoyed broad support across the party. Grassroots members did not have a say. 

As for what happens now? We don’t know yet how long the contest will last. Nominations will close in the week commencing 10 June, before voting among MPs begins, with the expectation that there could be a new Tory leader and British prime minister by mid-July.  

Boris Johnson is the overwhelming favourite to succeed Theresa May. He has considerable support among the Tory grassroots members – even if some of his parliamentary colleagues have vociferously expressed their opposition to a Johnson premiership. 

If he can make it through to the last two, he could well be on his way to a meeting with the Queen later this summer. 

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