There has been a lot of discussion among Canadian political pundits of caucus-driven party leadership challenges. I thought it might be a good idea to explore how that happens in practice by looking at procedure followed by the UK Conservative Party.
The UK Conservative Party is interesting to me because it uses a hybrid system to select a new party leader. The caucus will narrow the choice of candidates down to two, and only at that point will the party’s wider membership vote to select a leader from those two candidates. Everything begins, however, with the very important 1922 Committee.
The 1922 Committee, also known as “the 22″, is a committee of backbench Conservative MPs. The committee was formed in 1923 but takes its name from the 1922 general election, which the Conservative Party won. The many new Conservative MPs elected for the first time formed the Conservative Private Members’ Committee to discuss and influence political events. After the 1923 and 1924 elections, the membership expanded as more new Conservative MPs were elected, and in 1926 all backbench MPs were invited to become members
The committee allows the leadership and the backbenches of the Conservative Party to keep in touch with each other’s opinions. The Committee meets every week while Parliament is in session, and provides a way for Conservative backbenchers to coordinate and discuss their views based on their constituents’ and personal views, independently of frontbenchers. It is a very influential committee within the party and the Committee Chairman has direct access to the party leader.
The Committee also has an important role in choosing the party leader. The 1922 Committee has an 18-member executive committee, the chairman of which must oversee any election of a new party leader, or any Conservative party-led vote of confidence in respect of the current one. But how does that process work?
A leadership election can be triggered in one of two ways. The most straightforward one involves the post of leader becoming vacant – either due to the death of the leader, or his or her voluntary resignation. If the position of leader becomes vacant, the Chair of the 1922 Committee arranges for an election to begin as soon as possible. A leadership change can also be triggered through a confidence vote. A confidence vote will be triggered if a number of Conservative MPs amounting to no less than 15% of the the party’s caucus in the House of Commons advise the Chair of the 1922 Committee in writing – either collectively or separately – that they want a confidence vote in the leader. If this occurs, the Chair of the 1922 Committee will inform the leader that a vote of confidence is to be held. The names of the MPs requesting the vote of confidence is not disclosed. A date for the vote of confidence is arranged after consultation between the Chair of the 1922 Committee and the leader.
If the leader receives a simple majority of the votes cast in the confidence vote, he or she will remain as party leader and no further vote of confidence will be called for at least 12 months from the date of the ballot.
If the leader fails to obtain a majority of the votes cast, he or she will resign and a leadership election will take place. The defeated leader is not allowed to stand as a candidate.
Election of a Leader
The 1922 Committee has the duty of presenting a choice of candidates for election as leader. Only sitting MPs can be candidates for the leadership. Candidates are proposed and seconded by Conservative MPs. If only one valid nomination is received, that person is declared elected and is the new leader. If two nominations are received, then the two candidates will go forward for election by the general party membership. If more than two nominations are received, a ballot is held amongst the sitting Conservative MPs. If there are three candidates on the ballot, the two that receive the highest number of votes go forward to the general membership for election. If there are more than three candidates, the candidate receiving the fewest number of votes is dropped from the ballot and MPs vote again. This process is repeated until only two candidates remain, at which point, the party membership gets to vote.
The ballots don’t occur one after the other on the same day. Nominations for candidates will close on a Thursday, and the first ballot, if one is needed, will occur the following Tuesday. If a second ballot is required after the Tuesday vote, it will occur on Thursday of that same week. The process is repeated as necessary, with ballots being held on Tuesdays and Thursdays, until a ballot has been held in which only three candidates remain. Candidates may withdraw by advising the Returning Officer to that effect no less than 24 hours prior to the next ballot, unless by doing so, only one nomination would remain, in which case withdrawal is not permitted. Neither of the two candidates to go forward to the general membership may withdraw without the agreement of both the Chair of the 1922 Committee and the Board of the Party. If one of the candidates were to die during the process, the ballot of the Parliamentary Party will be reopened and re-run.
You can see by what has been (briefly) outlined above just how important – and powerful – the 1922 Committee is; and it is not that surprising that the current Conservative Party leader (and Prime Minister) David Cameron tried to dilute that power a few years ago. In 2010, Cameron announced that there would be a ballot of the parliamentary party to establish whether or not members of the government payroll vote (the frontbenchers) would become full voting members of the 1922 Committee. This was a huge challenge to the power of the Committee. If the change was adopted, it would hugely limit the power of Conservative backbenchers to hold the government to account. As the voice of the backbenchers, it was how they held Conservative ministers and prime ministers to account.
Cameron justified the rule change because the party was in a coalition government and it would be necessary to preserve party unity, and to achieve that, it would important to include ministers. MPs were also told that Winston Churchill had done the same during the war. After much debate, the changes were adopted by a vote of 168 to 118.
However, one MP, Bill Cash, so strongly opposed this change that he sought out legal advice on whether approving a change to the 1922 committee with a vote of the parliamentary party was legal. As Isabel Hardman explains:
He also discovered that Churchill had not, as was claimed at the meeting, made the same changes when he was Prime Minister: in fact he had looked at the same idea being proposed and had said it was impossible.
He then held a meeting with the key leadership figures involved in the changes in Downing Street the following Monday, where he also presented them with a letter that explained the QC’s opinion, and warned the leadership that it could face court action if it tried to proceed with the change.
On that day, a Tory spokesman clarified that ministers would be able to attend but not vote.
As Hardman concludes, “if the time that’s passed since that ballot has taught the Prime Minister anything, it’s that he ignores the voices of his backbenchers at his peril.”