The 2001 Conservative Party leadership election was held after the British Conservative Party failed to make inroads into the Labour government's lead in the 2001 general election. Party leader William Hague resigned, and a leadership contest was called under new rules Hague had introduced. Five candidates stepped forward: Michael Ancram, David Davis, Kenneth Clarke, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Portillo.
Duncan Smith was announced winner of the election on 13 September 2001, serving until 2003, and Ancram was subsequently awarded the Deputy Leadership, serving until 2005.
Ancram stood declaring that none of the other candidates were close to his form of Conservatism, as well as arguing that he was best placed to unite the party. As the party chairman for the previous three years, he was widely seen as the candidate who best represented a continuity in the direction of the Hague years.
Clarke had previously stood in the 1997 leadership election but had otherwise maintained a low profile in the subsequent four years. It was argued that his non-involvement in the party's election campaign meant that he was free from blame. His manifesto involved taking a softer line on the European Union, allowing a free vote on many issues, while concentrating heavily on the economy and public services.
Davis was very much an outsider candidate, not having served on the front bench under Hague, though he had served as a junior Minister in the government of John Major. As Chairman of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in the previous Parliament he had gained a good reputation at Westminster, and his relatively unknown profile among the electorate was argued to be an asset.
Duncan Smith stood as the standard bearer of the Thatcherite wing of the party, arguing the need for the party to stick to its principles and take a hard line on the European Union, while making use of the talents of all sections of the party.
Portillo ran on a somewhat socially liberal manifesto, calling for the party to reform and reach out to groups not normally associated with the party, calling for greater involvement of women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals. His supporters, and the platform, were dubbed "Portilistas". Portillo was the first candidate to declare, and many commentators saw the contest as coming down to whether or not the party agreed with him as his platform proved deeply controversial in some quarters.
There were several prominent Conservative politicians who did not stand despite speculation by political commentators preceding the election:
The election was conducted by the 1922 Committee, with that committee's chairman serving as Returning Officer. As the outgoing Chairman, Sir Archie Hamilton, had stood down from Parliament at the election, no Returning Officer was available for some time until Sir Michael Spicer was elected. This led to calls for the job of Returning Officer to be reallocated in future.
The rules required MPs to vote in a succession of ballots, with the lowest-scoring candidate eliminated each time, until only two candidates remained. MPs could vote for only a single candidate, but could change their vote each time.
The first ballot proved problematic. The party rules made no provision for a tie. As a result, Michael Spicer ordered that a fresh ballot be held the next day and declared that if the tie prevailed then both lowest-scoring candidates would be eliminated. On the second ballot, Ancram was eliminated by virtue of placing last. Davis withdrew as the difference between him and the next candidate was greater than Ancram's votes. Both Davis and Ancram endorsed Duncan Smith. By a single vote Portillo was eliminated from the contest on the third ballot.
|Candidate||First ballot: 10 July 2001||Second ballot: 12 July 2001||Third ballot: 17 July 2001|
|Iain Duncan Smith||39||23.5||42||25.3||54||32.5|
The MP-only stage of the contest attracted much criticism. Many questioned the validity of MPs eliminating the candidates, potentially denying the ordinary members the opportunity to vote for a favourite candidate (Ann Widdecombe declined to run because she believed she would not reach the last round). Others questioned how it could be claimed that the eventual winner could be assured of support among MPs (the argument often given for previous elections being conducted by MPs only and now for holding these initial rounds) as in the final round each had attracted the support of only a third of the Parliamentary Party. The potential for tactical voting also came in for question. On more technical grounds, the lack of provision of a tie and the delay in appointing a returning officer also sparked concerns, with the former point also leading to ridicule from political opponents.
Duncan Smith and Clarke's names went forward to the full party membership in a three-month contest that was at times acrimonious. Both outgoing leader Hague and Margaret Thatcher endorsed Duncan Smith's candidacy, while John Major endorsed Clarke; Edward Heath, the only other living former Conservative leader did not publicly endorse either of them, but was thought to favour Clarke.
The closing date for ballots was 11 September, but due to the September 11 attacks in the United States, the announcement of the result was delayed until 13 September. Iain Duncan Smith emerged as winner with over 60% of the vote, although without a clear majority among MPs, which many believe hampered the inexperienced leader and led to the events which saw Michael Howard replace him in 2003.
|Membership ballot: 11 September 2001|
|Iain Duncan Smith||155,933||60.7|
|Iain Duncan Smith elected|
In hindsight, Iain Duncan Smith's leadership was widely regarded as a disaster for the Conservatives, with the party's poll ratings declining to under 30% at times. After just two years as leader of the Conservative Party, Duncan Smith lost a confidence vote amongst Conservative MPs and was replaced as leader by Michael Howard. Howard went on to lose the 2005 General Election, improving on William Hague's performance in 2001 but still falling some way short of the 209 MPs Labour picked up in their disastrous 1983 campaign. Howard announced he was to resign the leadership, but first he would attempt to reform the electoral system to reduce the role for the rank-and-file party membership (he failed in this).
In the subsequent leadership election, David Cameron was elected as Conservative Party leader. Although he had failed in his own campaign, commentators have since argued that Portillo's run in 2001 created the conditions under which his reformist agenda was able to succeed four years later. By this point, however, Portillo himself had retired from Parliament, frustrated with party politics.
Cameron returned the party to government at the 2010 general election as the head of a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition. In this government, Duncan Smith was appointed Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Clarke was appointed Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. Cameron subsequently won a majority five years later at the 2015 general election.