The 2016 Conservative Party leadership election occurred as a result of Prime Minister David Cameron's resignation as party leader. He had resigned after losing the national referendum to leave the European Union. Cameron, who supported Britain's continued membership of the EU, announced his resignation on 24 June, saying that he would step down by October. Theresa May won the contest on 11 July 2016, after the withdrawal of Andrea Leadsom left her as the sole candidate.
Conservative Members of Parliament had voted initially in a series of ballots to determine which two candidates would go forward to a nationwide ballot of Conservative Party members for the final decision. Five Conservative MPs put themselves forward as candidates: Justice Secretary Michael Gove, Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb, former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change Andrea Leadsom, and Home Secretary Theresa May. Former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, seen as the front runner by political analysts,[who?] surprised many commentators[who?] by choosing not to run after Gove withdrew his backing and announced his own candidacy.
In the first-round ballot, May, gaining the support of half of Conservative MPs, was placed first with Leadsom in second place. Fox was eliminated on the first ballot; Crabb withdrew later that day. Gove was eliminated in the second round of voting. Before the Conservative Party members were due to cast their votes, Leadsom withdrew from the contest on 11 July. May was appointed party leader later that day, and Prime Minister on 13 July. She appointed Boris Johnson, Fox and Leadsom to her Cabinet, respectively as Foreign Secretary, International Trade Secretary, and Environment Secretary.
If not for Leadsom's withdrawal, Conservative Party members would have directly elected a new Prime Minister for the first time.
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During the 2015 general election campaign, David Cameron, then leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, announced that he would not seek a third term; he was therefore expected to stand down before the following general election — at that time, expected to occur in 2020 — although he spoke of serving a full term.
Following a manifesto commitment, Cameron and the Conservative Party introduced legislation for a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union, which was held on 23 June 2016. Cameron and the Government supported a Remain vote, although the Conservative Party was officially neutral in the campaign and many Conservative politicians, including some Cabinet members, campaigned to Leave. There was speculation during the campaign as to whether Cameron would resign if Leave won, but on the day of the referendum, both Leave- and Remain-supporting Conservatives called for him to stay whatever the result.
A Leave win was announced on the morning of 24 June 2016, and Cameron announced shortly afterward that he would be stepping down. He said that he would continue in post while the leadership election was ongoing, with the new leader to be in place in time for the party conference in October. However, the way in which events unfolded resulted in his much earlier departure.
The campaign was framed by whether candidates had supported Remain or Leave; initial speculation by some analysts was that a Leave supporter would be more likely to win. Based on media speculation, the front runners on 29 June were Boris Johnson (Leave) and Theresa May (Remain), with Johnson the early favourite. Johnson's candidacy was expected to be supported by Michael Gove, the two having worked together for Leave through the referendum campaign, as well as by Andrea Leadsom. However, earlier that week, May was leading by a narrow margin in opinion polls commissioned by The Times and by The Independent.
Gove, previously seen as a key ally of the Johnson campaign, announced his own candidacy three hours before nominations closed, stating that he had reluctantly come to the conclusion that Johnson could not "provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead." Johnson subsequently withdrew from the leadership race. The Telegraph stated that Gove's actions in undermining Johnson's leadership aspirations constituted "the most spectacular political assassination in a generation." Gove's move was compared to the betrayals of fiction with, for example, Johnson's father, Stanley Johnson, quoting "Et tu Brute". Some of Johnson's allies subsequently began shifting their support to May, because they perceived a "systematic and calculated plot" by Gove to remove their candidate from the race.
By 5 July 2016, Gove was in a distant third place in the leadership race based on the number of endorsements received from other MPs. He was eliminated in the second MPs' ballot.
A post-contest analysis in The Daily Telegraph noted that the £275,000 contributions to Theresa May's campaign "dwarfed her rivals", and Cameron's original honours list contained the names of two major Conservative party donors who supported her campaign.
The initial days of the campaign remained overshadowed by the fallout from Gove's entry into the race and Johnson's departure. May gathered the most support from MPs early on. Gavin Williamson — later to be appointed Chief Whip by May — was her parliamentary campaign manager and responsible for rallying this support, together with a small group of MPs including Julian Smith, Kris Hopkins, Simon Kirby, Karen Bradley and George Hollingbery. In the initial days of the campaign, Leadsom said that she would not rule out involving Nigel Farage, then the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), in Brexit negotiations; the May campaign criticised Leadsom for claimed UKIP links. Leadsom had approached the Johnson campaign with a proposed deal not to run in exchange for being made one of his top three ministers. Johnson agreed to the deal, but was too late in communicating the decision, and Leadsom chose to run for leader.
All five candidates for the Conservative leadership said that they would not call an early general election, relying instead on the Conservative mandate secured at the 2015 election. The five candidates also rejected the idea of calling a second referendum on British withdrawal from the EU, pledging to take the UK out of the Union, although on different timeframes.
Among the key issues that emerged during the Conservative leadership campaign were:
An editorial in The Guardian noted that the Brexit-dominated leadership campaign presented a danger that the next prime minister would be chosen on this basis at a time when several major domestic issues would also demand the prime minister's attention, such as the disputes between the government and unions representing teachers and junior doctors.
An interview with Leadsom in The Times in early July created some controversy. The article quoted Leadsom as saying that motherhood gave her a better political perspective than May — who is childless — although Leadsom protested the article misrepresented her views. She later apologised to May. There was also controversy about claimed inaccuracies in Leadsom's CV. Meanwhile, Crabb, after his candidacy had ended, was reported to have been sexting a woman despite being married and stressing family values in his campaign.
Leadsom withdrew from the contest on 11 July, arguing that May should become leader promptly.
The election process for selecting the leader of the Conservative Party is overseen by the Conservative 1922 Committee, although election procedures are approved by the Board of the Conservative Party. Nominations for the leadership are invited by the Chairman of the 1922 Committee (Graham Brady at the time), acting as Returning Officer for all stages of the election. Candidates must be proposed and seconded in writing, with names of the proposers and seconders being published. When nominations close, a list of valid nominations is published. If there is only one valid nomination, that person is declared elected. If only two valid nominations are received, both names go forward to the general membership of the Party. If more than two nominations are received, a ballot is held within the Parliamentary Party on the Tuesday immediately following the closing date for nominations. An exhaustive ballot system is used to select two candidates to go forward to the general membership of the Party.
A ballot paper is produced and issued to all Conservative Members in the House of Commons, who indicate one choice from the candidates listed. Proxy votes are possible. The ballot is conducted in secret. If there are three candidates in the first ballot, the two who receive the most votes go forward to the general membership. If there are more than three, the candidate receiving the fewest votes is eliminated and a second ballot, under the same rules, is held the following Thursday. If there are no more than three candidates in the second ballot, the two receiving the most votes go forward to the general membership. If a third ballot is required, it is held the following Tuesday. This process is repeated as often as necessary, on alternate Tuesdays and Thursdays. When a ballot with only three candidates is reached, the two candidates who receive the highest number of votes go forward to the general membership. Candidates may withdraw their names at any time, "up to 24 hours of the opening of the ballot", but no new nominations will be accepted after the first ballot.
The two candidates selected by the Parliamentary Party are then put to the full membership of the Party (specifically, "all the members of the Conservative Party in good standing who have been members for not less than three months prior to the date of the announcement of the Vote of Confidence") in a postal ballot. Each Party member, on a "one member, one vote" basis, may vote for their preferred candidate. It is not explicitly stated in the rules from when the three months applies, in the eventuality of the leader resigning, but Rule 5 in the "Rules for the Election of the Leader" (which appears as Schedule 2 to the Constitution of the Conservative Party) gives this as "immediately prior to the close of the ballot for the election of the Leader". The Chairman of the 1922 Committee consults with the Board of the Conservative Party to agree the closing date for the ballot, which will be "as soon as practicable" after the date of the last ballot in the Parliamentary Party. The chairman, as returning officer, shall agree with the Board who is responsible, under his direction, for the receipt and counting of the votes, and the chairman announces the results "as soon as practicable" to a meeting of the Parliamentary Party and representatives of the Conservative Party.
Should only a single candidate be nominated, or all but one candidate be eliminated or withdraw before the scheduled end of the election (set in this instance as 9 September 2016), that single (or remaining) candidate is elected effectively unopposed without—if applicable—the votes of the party membership being issued (or counted if the ballot papers have already been issued).
The first ballot of MPs was held on 5 July. The results were announced at 18:30 by 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady. May placed first, far ahead of her closest rival Leadsom. Fifth-placed candidate Fox was knocked out of the race, and Crabb withdrew following scandalous revelations about his private life; both endorsed May. Gove, Leadsom and May went through to the second ballot held on 7 July. May again was the clear winner, with Leadsom beating Gove, which meant that May and Leadsom went through to the members' ballot, the result of which was due to be announced on 9 September.
However, on 11 July, Leadsom withdrew from the race, saying it is in the "best interests of the country", leaving May as the only candidate. Conservative MP and Chairman of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, announced that May would be confirmed as Conservative Party leader as soon as the party's board had been consulted. She was confirmed as leader; David Cameron tendered his resignation as Prime Minister on 13 July, with May accepting the Queen's invitation to succeed him shortly afterwards. Having been appointed Prime Minister, she entered 10 Downing Street with a speech emphasising the term Unionist in the name of the party, reminding all of "the precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland."
After she became Prime Minister, May's cabinet appointments tilted to the right, according to The Guardian; but her speech clearly targeted the left, with a promise to combat the "burning injustice" in British society and create a union "between all of our citizens" and promising to be an advocate for the "ordinary working-class family" and not for the affluent in the UK. "The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. ... When we take the big calls, we'll think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws we'll listen not to the mighty, but to you. When it comes to taxes we'll prioritise not the wealthy but you."
5 July 2016
7 July 2016
|Stephen Crabb||34||10.3||Withdrew, endorsed May|
|Liam Fox||16||4.9||Eliminated, endorsed May|
|Theresa May unopposed|
Analysis of the results of the second ballot by Jeffery et al., published in the journal Parliamentary Affairs, have shown that Conservative MPs could be split into three electoral groups: Remain-backing Conservative MPs were more likely to support May, while Leave-backing MPs were split between socially-liberal Leave MPs, who were more likely to back Gove, and socially-conservative Leave MPs, who showed a greater propensity to vote for Leadsom.
(age at time of contest)
|Constituency||Most recent position(s) (at time of contest)||Pre-referendum position on EU membership||Announced candidacy||Proposer and Seconder||Public declarations/
endorsements from MPs
(prior to first ballot)
endorsements from MPs
(prior to second ballot)
20 January 1973
|MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire
|Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
|Remain||28 June 2016||Sajid Javid and
22 / 330(6.7%)
22 September 1961
|MP for North Somerset
|Secretary of State for Defence
|Leave||29 June 2016||Robert Goodwill and
7 / 330(2.1%)
26 August 1967
|MP for Surrey Heath
Secretary of State for Justice
|Leave||30 June 2016||Nicky Morgan and
27 / 330(8.2%)
27 / 330(8.2%)
13 May 1963
|MP for South Northamptonshire
|Minister of State for Energy & Climate Change
|Leave||30 June 2016||Penny Mordaunt and
42 / 330(12.7%)
48 / 330(14.5%)
1 October 1956
|MP for Maidenhead
|Remain||30 June 2016||Chris Grayling and
141 / 330(42.7%)
159 / 330(48.2%)
The following individuals announced that they would seek the leadership of the Conservative Party but then eventually did not stand, or withdrew from the race, due to insufficient support or other reasons:
The following individuals were the focus of media speculation as being possible leadership candidates, but ruled out a bid or did not stand by the requisite time:
N.B. MPs are not required to vote as per their public endorsements.
Other Conservative politicians
Note some polls have asked respondents how they would vote in certain head-to-head scenarios, as indicated below.
|Date(s) administered||Poll source||Sample
|11 July 2016||Andrea Leadsom withdraws from the ballot, Theresa May is declared the new Leader of the Conservative Party.|
|7 July 2016||Sky Data||1,002 "nationally representative" Sky customers||—||—||—||—||25%||48%||—||Don't know 28%|
|7 July 2016||Second ballot: Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May are entered into the ballot, Michael Gove is eliminated.|
|5 July 2016||First ballot: Theresa May wins 50.2% of MP support, Liam Fox is eliminated and Stephen Crabb withdraws from the election.|
|4–5 July 2016||Survation||1,062 Conservative councillors||2.3%||1.8%||5.1%||—||21.8%||46.2%||—||Undecided 17.9%|
|1–4 July 2016||YouGov/The Times||994 Conservative Party members||5%||5%||9%||—||20%||54%||—||6%|
|30 June 2016||Nomination period closes at noon BST. Boris Johnson declares that he will not run as a candidate.|
|29 June 2016||Nomination period opens at 6 pm BST.|
|27–29 June 2016||YouGov/The Times||1,001 Conservative Party members||7%||4%||—||27%||7%||36%||4%||Don't know 6%|
David Davis 4%
Sajid Javid 3%
Nicky Morgan 1%
|26–27 June 2016||YouGov/The Times||438 Conservative voters[a]||1%||4%||8%||24%||1%||31%||4%||Don't know 24%|
Sajid Javid 2%
Jeremy Hunt 1%
Nicky Morgan 0%
|2,013 British residents[b]||2%||3%||5%||18%||1%||19%||3%||Don't know 44% |
Sajid Javid 3%
Jeremy Hunt 1%
Nicky Morgan 0%
|25 June 2016||Bristol Post||700 voters||—||19%||6%||41%||—||27%||7%||Nicky Morgan 1%|
|24–25 June 2016||Survation/The Mail on Sunday||1,033 British residents[b]||1.6%||—||6.1%||28.3%||—||13.1%||6.9%||Don't know 37.1% |
Ruth Davidson 5.5%
Jeremy Hunt 1.4%
|—||—||—||62.1%||—||—||—||Jeremy Hunt 37.9%|
|—||—||—||55.7%||—||—||—||Ruth Davidson 44.3%|
|252 Conservative voters[c]||1.7%||—||6.9%||32.9%||—||19.3%||10.4%||Don't know 24.1%|
Jeremy Hunt 2.6%
Ruth Davidson 2.1%
|—||—||—||70.5%||—||—||—||Jeremy Hunt 29.5%|
|—||—||—||68%||—||—||—||Ruth Davidson 32%|
|24 June 2016||David Cameron announces his resignation as leader of the Conservative Party and as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.|
|23 June 2016||The United Kingdom votes to Leave the European Union in a nationwide referendum.|
|23–26 February 2016||YouGov||1,005 Conservative Party members||—||—||—||43%||—||19%||22%||Sajid Javid 7%|
Don't know 7%
Nicky Morgan 1%
|14–17 November 2015||Ipsos MORI/Evening Standard||307 Conservative voters[a]||—||—||—||32%||—||26%||23%||19%|
|1,021 British residents[b]||—||—||—||25%||—||19%||11%||45%|
|19–23 September 2015||Ipsos MORI||395 Conservative voters[a]||—||—||—||29%||—||18%||32%||19%|
|1,255 British residents[b]||—||—||—||27%||—||17%||15%||41%|
|21–22 September 2015||Survation/Huffington Post UK||303 Conservative voters[a]||—||—||—||30.4%||—||16.3%||26.2%||Don't know 23.3%|
Jeremy Hunt 2.9%
Nicky Morgan 0.9%
|1,008 British residents[b]||—||—||—||25%||—||11.2%||14.6%||Don't know 45.2% |
Nicky Morgan 2.1%
Jeremy Hunt 2%