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Next Conservative Party (UK) leadership election

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Party leader and Prime Minister Theresa May in late 2017

The next Conservative Party leadership election has not yet been launched, but the current party leader and Prime Minister Theresa May has indicated she would most likely not seek to lead the party into another general election in 2022. These comments were in reaction to a no confidence vote by the party's MPs in her leadership that was triggered on 11 December 2018, following the receipt of letters from forty-eight Conservative MPs calling for one. A leadership election would have been called had May lost the vote, but she won with 200 against and 117 for. In March 2019, she then said that she will stand down sooner if her Brexit deal is passed.

Speculation about a leadership election first arose following the party's poor showing at the 2017 snap general election that May had called in hope of increasing her parliamentary majority for Brexit negotiations. However, the Conservatives lost their majority in the House of Commons due to a swing towards the Labour Party. Subsequent speculation has arisen from the difficulties May has had in getting a Brexit deal that is acceptable to the Conservative Party. These escalated in November 2018, with members of the Eurosceptic European Research Group pushing for a vote of no confidence in May that was held in December.


After the results of the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum saw a 52% to 48% vote in favour of leaving, David Cameron resigned as Leader of the Conservative Party and as Prime Minister, which triggered the 2016 Conservative Party leadership election.[1][2][3] Theresa May, then serving as Home Secretary, won the contest after the withdrawal of Andrea Leadsom, and she succeeded Cameron as Prime Minister on 13 July 2016.[4][5]

Snap general election and aftermath

As Prime Minister, May began the process of withdrawing the UK from the European Union, triggering Article 50 on 29 March 2017.[6] In April 2017, May announced a snap general election in June, in order to "strengthen her hand" when she negotiated with the European Union.[7] Opinion polls originally predicted a landslide victory for the Conservative Party, and May aimed to substantially increase her party's slim majority.[8] However, the result was a hung parliament,[9] in which the number of Conservative seats fell from 330 to 318,[10] prompting her to broker a confidence and supply deal with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to support her minority government.[11]

May's handling of the campaign was widely criticised, particularly the role of her two chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who both resigned within days of the result.[12] In June 2017, George Osborne, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, described May as a "dead woman walking".[13] A survey on the website ConservativeHome found that almost two thirds of Conservative Party members wanted Theresa May to resign.[14] A YouGov poll of 1,720 adults for The Sunday Times had 48% saying May should resign, with 38% against, with a Survation poll of 1,036 adults online for the Mail on Sunday giving a similar result.[15] Former Cabinet minister Anna Soubry called for May to "consider her position" after the election result.[16] Former Cabinet minister Nicky Morgan said that May could not lead the Conservative Party into the next general election and called for a leadership election in the summer or in 2018 before the Brexit deal would be finalised.[17] Conservatives who had supported the Leave campaign during the referendum pledged their loyalty to May, but many reportedly threatened an immediate leadership challenge should May plan to "dilute" her initial plans for Brexit.[citation needed] After the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, May's leadership faced more criticism after her initial refusal to meet victims and her poor handling of the crisis.[18]

With May's position weakened, senior figures in the party were said to be preparing for a leadership contest and "jostling for succession".[19] Politicians and journalists did not expect May to lead the party at the next general election, with the Sunday Times Political Editor Tim Shipman describing "the first shots in a battle that could tear the government apart" in a July 2017 article as the three then-leading contenders for the leadership, David Davis, Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond, briefed against each other.[20] Junior ministers were also said to be frustrated at Cabinet ministers propping up a Prime Minister with no authority to further their careers, with some ministers preparing to resign in order to trigger a leadership election. Andrew Mitchell, an ally of Davis, was said to have told a dinner that May was finished and was said to be organising letters to force May to announce her date of departure.[21] A July 2017 report in The Independent said a core of fifteen Conservative MPs were ready to sign letters of no confidence, with forty-eight needed to trigger a contest.[22]

May reportedly announced to Conservative MPs in August 2017 that she would resign as Prime Minister on 30 August 2019, making it likely that the next leadership election would take place in the summer of 2019.[23] May subsequently announced on 31 August 2017 that she intended to stay on to fight the next general election, which under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is scheduled to be in 2022, though it can be held earlier if MPs vote for it to be, as was the case for the snap election of 2017.[24]

On 16 September 2017, Johnson published an article in The Daily Telegraph laying out his vision for Brexit. Many people saw this as him positioning himself for a leadership challenge, although some commentators, such as Newsnight's political editor Nick Watt and columnist Iain Dale, argued this was the wrong interpretation and that Johnson's motivation was to assert his influence in Brexit negotiations.[25][26] The timing of the article, a few days before May was to give a significant speech on her plans for the UK's relationship with Europe after Brexit, and shortly after a terrorist attack in London, was criticised.[27][28]

Summer 2018 Cabinet resignations

Following Cabinet agreement for May's proposals on Brexit, Davis resigned as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on 8 July 2018.[29][30] Steve Baker, a minister in the same department, resigned later the same day.[31] On the same day it was reported that May was facing the threat of a leadership contest amid mounting anger from Brexiteers over her government's Brexit policy.[32] Conservative Party backbencher Andrea Jenkyns called on for the Prime Minister to be replaced, saying "Theresa May's premiership is over".[33][34] Johnson later resigned as Foreign Secretary on 9 July 2018.[35]

A Daily Telegraph article opposing the burqa ban in Denmark by Johnson in early August 2018 sparked controversy given the language he used, saying women wearing the burqa look like letter boxes or bank robbers. Some[who?] saw it as an attempt to court an anti-Islamic segment of the Conservative Party membership, who would be the electorate in the final stage of a leadership campaign.[36] Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve said that he would not remain in the party if Johnson became leader.[37]

Brexit deal presented

In November 2018, May presented her final proposal for an initial Brexit deal following negotiations with the EU. Dominic Raab, her Brexit secretary, and others resigned from the Cabinet in response,[38] with Jacob Rees-Mogg calling for a leadership election for the first time. Members of the Eurosceptic European Research Group, like Rees-Mogg and Baker, were seen to be launching a coup in mid-November following the Cabinet resignations. There was considerable speculation over whether enough letters of no confidence would be reached to trigger a vote.[39]

15% of the Parliamentary party (48 MPs) need to send a letter to the chairman of the 1922 Committee to trigger a no confidence vote in the Conservative Party leader. As of early afternoon on 16 November 2018, the BBC reported there were 21 MPs who had publicly stated they had sent a letter: Rees-Mogg, Baker, Andrea Jenkyns, Andrew Bridgen, Philip Davies, James Duddridge, Anne Marie Morris, Lawrence Robertson, Nadine Dorries, Simon Clarke, Henry Smith, Maria Caulfield, Sheryll Murray, Lee Rowley, Martin Vickers, Peter Bone, Mark Francois, Adam Holloway, John Whittingdale, Ben Bradley, Chris Green.[40] Baker asserted that more letters had been sent and that he expected 48 to be reached in the week beginning 19 November.[41] Some commentators expressed scepticism about this prediction.[42] By 19 November 2018, 26 MPs publicly said they had submitted letters, with the addition of Marcus Fysh, Zac Goldsmith, David Jones, Bill Cash, and Philip Hollobone.[43] Baker also suggested that the ERG could draw lots for who would be their candidate in a leadership election.[44] By 20 November, the 48 letters had not been reached, with Rees-Mogg predicting that it may be reached in December when the House of Commons was due to vote on May's deal.[45] However, facing likely defeat with opposition from the ERG, DUP and Conservative MPs who had supported Remain during the referendum, the vote was put back to January.

Conservative MPs including Dominic Grieve and Kwasi Kwarteng suggested that the party could see members leaving the party or a formal split if the party were led by Johnson.[46]

12 December confidence vote

By the beginning of 11 December, the public count was still at 26 letters from MPs. That day, however, Owen Paterson publicly put in his letter and it later became apparent that 48 letters had been submitted.[47][48] (Bernard Jenkin had also submitted on 11 December.)[49] May was informed in the evening of 11 December[50] and chose to contest the vote.[51] The confidence vote, called for 6pm-8pm on 12 December,[52] was a secret ballot of all Conservative MPs in the House of Commons.[52]

In the week May had been meeting a series of EU leaders to discuss changes to her Brexit deal, but cancelled a planned 12 December meeting with the Irish premier Leo Varadkar, in order to campaign to win the confidence vote.[52] May and her supporters argued that a defeat for May would mean that Brexit would have to be delayed.[53][52] Late morning on 12 December, bookmakers gave May an 80% chance of winning the vote.[54] In a speech to Conservative MPs, immediately before voting, May said that she did not intend to lead the party into the 2022 general election.[55] May also said that she would seek a legally-binding addition to the withdrawal agreement with the EU to address concerns over the Northern Ireland back stop.[56]

MPs Andrew Griffiths and Charlie Elphicke, who had been suspended from the party, had the whip restored on the day of the vote, meaning they could also vote. Griffiths stated his support for May; Elphicke, a Brexiter, declined to indicate his preference.[57] Including Griffiths and Elphicke, there were 317 Conservative MPs able to vote, meaning 159 votes were required for a win.[50] Every member of the Cabinet declared their support for May.[50] This included Leave supporters in the Cabinet like Michael Gove and Liam Fox. Notable Remain supporters in the Conservative Party, including Anna Soubry, also declared support for May,[50] as did May's predecessor, David Cameron, and the acting leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Jackson Carlaw.[51] (Carlaw is acting leader while Ruth Davidson is on maternity leave; later that day, Davidson also tweeted her support for May.[58]) The Tory Reform Group also announced their support for May.[59] Notable Leave supporters outside the Cabinet, including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Bill Cash, said they would be voting against her.[50] By 4pm, 174 Conservative MPs had publicly declared for May with 34 publicly against[50] (although there was no necessity for an MP having indicated they would vote one way to do so given there was a secret ballot[58]).

The pound initially fell on news of the no confidence vote, but rallied after indications that May would probably win.[60]

Vote of confidence in Theresa May
Support/Oppose Votes %
Support 200 63.1
Oppose 117 36.9
Abstentions 0 0
Majority 83 26.2
Turnout 317 100
Conservative MPs vote in confidence

May won the vote by 200 for to 117 against, in a result announced at about 9 pm. Brexiteers varied in their response to the result: some, including Rees-Mogg and Raab called on her to resign nevertheless, while Paterson, for example, called on her to change her Brexit policy.[61] As May won this vote, another party leader confidence vote cannot be held for one year.[52]

Brexit deadline approaches

On 27 March 2019, May said she would resign before the next stage of EU negotiations if her Brexit deal was passed.[62]


A large number of candidates have attracted attention or been the subject of speculation as possible candidates. In 2017, the main contenders were initially seen to be Philip Hammond, David Davis, Boris Johnson and Amber Rudd.[63] By early August 2017, Jacob Rees-Mogg was receiving considerable attention and he had risen to second in the betting markets after Davis.[64]

There was considerable speculation that the party's leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, could stand to be the next leader despite being ineligible as she is not currently an MP at Westminster.[65][66] In September 2018, she said that she did not want the job and would focus on politics in Scotland.[67] She was on maternity leave at the time of the December no confidence vote.[51]

Following renewed speculation about May's leadership after Johnson and Davis resigned from the Cabinet in summer 2018, press interest focused on Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt.[66][68][69] Dominic Raab became Brexit Secretary after Davis. In November 2018, following his resignation from the role over a proposed deal on the UK's departure from the European Union, Raab became the bookmakers' favourite to be new leader, followed by Javid or Johnson.[70][71] Raab opposed holding a leadership election, but did not rule out his candidacy.[72] Esther McVey, who resigned her position as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the same day, indicated that she would stand as a candidate if she had support.[72]

By December, Johnson, Javid and Rudd were all reported to be contemplating running if May is voted out.[48] In November/December, other potential candidates included Gove, Hunt, Raab, Davis and Penny Mordaunt.[73][51][74] Bookmakers had Johnson as most likely to succeed May on the morning of 12 December confidence vote.[75]

Publicly expressed interest

As of April 2019, the following individuals have publicly expressed interest in the leadership of the Conservative Party:

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