After becoming Conservative leader in 1997 William Hague oversaw a review of the party’s leadership rules. As everyone interested in politics knows the main part of this was to give ordinary party members a vote – Conservative MPs would still get to whittle down the field of candidates to two, but ordinary party members would then pick the final winner (in theory at least, in 2016 that final choice was dodged by Andrea Leadsom standing down).

The other major change introduced by Hague seems to have seeped less well into the consciousness of the Westminster village. You still see the press talking about “stalking horse” candidates sometimes, or talk about such-and-such mounting a challenge against the leader, echoing back to the old rules when people like Thatcher in 1975 and Heseltine in 1990 could directly stand against the incumbent leader. Such a race is no longer possible. Grant Shapps this morning called for Theresa May to call a leadership election. Again, she can’t really do that, or at least, not in the way John Major did in 1995 when he called an election and stood himself. The current rules state that if a contest is caused by the resignation of the incumbent leader then that outgoing leader can’t stand as a candidate. In short, the only way Theresa May could call a leadership election is by resigning and going away.

Under the current rules a Conservative leader cannot face a leadership “challenge”. Instead the way of removing a leader is through a vote of confidence by Conservative MPs, triggered by 15% (currently 48) of Conservative MPs writing to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee saying they would like one. The incumbent leader does not face a challenger or challengers in such a vote, it is a straight Yes or No to whether they should continue in office. If the leader loses the vote, then they cease to be leader and an election for a replacement begins in which the ousted leader is not eligible to stand.

The 48 letters do not need to be organised together, or indeed sent at the same time. They can be a collection of dribs and drabs sent over weeks or months. Right now Grant Shapps appears to be organising (or is, at least, the public face of) those Tory MPs who wish May to go, but there is no requirement in the rules for a “challenger” as such.

Full rules are actually quite hard to find – while the party constitution has some details of the election procedure, the rules for ousting a leader are in a seperate document from the 1922 committee. A full set of the rules is, however, on Tom Quinn’s website here.


This morning’s Times has a new YouGov poll of Conservative party members, asking mainly about Brexit and the party leadership.

Party members are a generally loyal bunch, so as you’d expect all the main players are seen as doing well, though Michael Fallon and David Davis stand out as having the best job approval. While everyone has very positive ratings overall, there are some contrasts between members who voted remain and leave, most obviously in the case of Boris Johnson. 83% of Tory members who voted Leave think Boris is doing well as Foreign Secretary, only 42% of Tory remainers think he is.

Despite the strongly positive ratings for Davis, there are doubts over the Brexit negotiations. 61% of Tory members think the government are doing well, 33% badly. Asked about what the government’s approach should be, 59% agree with Theresa May’s aim of leaving the single market and customs union and negotiating a new deal, 19% would rather just leave immediately with no deal, 12% would rather Britain did remain a member of the single market and customs union, 9% would rather Britain remain a full EU member.

In terms of the details of Brexit Theresa May appears to have some degree of flexibility with her members so long as Britain makes a clean break. 58% of Tory members would think a transition deal was fine (even if it includes payment and following EU rules), 61% think a one-off payment to settle Britain’s financial liabilities is fine too. Trickier would be any ongoing financial payment in return for market access (70% of Tory members would see this as unacceptable) or Britain remaining in the single market (69% would see it as unacceptable).

Looking to May’s future, there is very little appetite for her immediate removal (only 13% of her party members would like her to go now or in the next year), but equally there is relatively little support for her still being around come the next election (only 29%). Most Tory party members would like her to leave after Brexit (38%) or just before the next election (13%).

Who would be a likely successor is unclear. Boris Johnson leads the field as first choice, but only of 23% of members. Second is Ruth Davidson on 19%, third is Jacob Rees-Mogg, suggesting there are actually real party members who think he’d make a good leader, rather than just journos struggling to fill column inches in silly season. David Davis has now dropped to fourth place on 11%, Amber Rudd is on just 6%.

Asked what is most important to them in a leader the vast majority of party members say ability to win an election or competence as Prime Minister, rather than whether they agree with them politically. Their actual preferences paint a different picture though, with consistent differences between Remain and Leave Tories. Tory members who voted Leave say their first choices are Johnson (29%), Rees-Mogg (23%), Davidson (14%), Davis (13%). Tory members who voted Remain say their first choices are Davidson (29%), Rudd (14%), Hammond (11%), Johnson (10%).

YouGov also asked about various potential candidates individually. 58% think Davidson would make a good leader, 56% Johnson, 55% Davis, 42% Rudd, 32% Hammond, 31% Fox, Javid 29%. While the poll included some less high profile figures who have been talked of as potential leaders of the future, most party members didn’t really have an impression of them – 49% said they didn’t know enough about Dominic Raab to have an opinion, 65% said the same about Tom Tugendhat. Notably, of all those asked about Ruth Davidson was the only candidate that both Remain voting Tories and Leave voting Tories thought would make a good leader. It would be an extremely positive sign for a Davidson leadership campaign… if, of course, she had any interest in moving down to Westminster or seeking the job.

Full tabs are here.


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There are new YouGov voting intention figures for the Times this morning, with topline figures of CON 39%, LAB 30%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 13%, GRN 3%. The Conservatives continue to have a solid lead and there is no sign of any benefit to Labour from their party conference (fieldwork was on Wednesday and Thursday, so directly after Jeremy Corbyn’s speech).

Theresa May has been Prime Minister for two and a half months now, so we’re still in the sort of honeymoon period. Most of her premiership so far has consisted of the summer holidays when not much political news happens and she’s had the additional benefit of her opposition being busy with their own leadership contest. Now that is over and we approach May’s own party conference and the resumption of normal politics.

Theresa May’s own ratings remain strong. 46% of people think she is doing well, 22% badly. Asking more specific questions about her suitability for the role most people (by 52% to 19%) think she is up to the job of PM, she is seen as having what it takes to get things done (by 53% to 19%), and having good ideas to improve the country (by 35% to 27%). People don’t see her as in touch with ordinary people (29% do, 40% do not) but that is probably because she is still a Conservative; David Cameron’s ratings on being in touch were poor throughout his premiership. The most worrying figure in there for May should probably be that people don’t warm to her – 32% think she has a likeable personality, 35% do not. One might well say this shouldn’t matter, but the truth is it probably does. People are willing to give a lot more leeway to politicians they like. In many way Theresa May’s ratings – strong, competent, but not particularly personally likeable – have an echo of how Gordon Brown was seen by the public when he took over as Prime Minister. That didn’t end well (though in fairness, I suppose Mrs Thatcher was seen in a similar way).

The biggest political obstacle looming ahead of Theresa May is, obviously, Brexit. So far people do not think the government are doing a good job of it. 16% think they are handling Brexit negotiations well, 50% badly. Both sides of the debate are dissatisfied – Remain voters think they are doing badly by 60% to 10%, Leave voters think they are doing badly by 45% to 24%. Obviously the government haven’t really started the process of negotiating exit and haven’t said much beyond “Brexit means Brexit”, but these figures don’t suggest they are beginning with much public goodwill behind them.

Finally, among the commentariat the question of an early election has not gone away (and will probably keep on being asked for as long as the Conservatives have a small majority but large poll lead). 36% of people currently want an early election, 46% of people do not. The usual patterns with questions like this is that supporters of the governing party do not normally want an election (they are happy with the status quo), supporters of the main opposition party normally do want an election (as they hope the government would be kicked out). Interestingly this still holds true despite the perception that an early election would help the Conservatives: a solid majority of Labour supporters would like an early election, most Conservative supporters are opposed.

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The Times this morning has updated YouGov polling of Conservative party members, now that the final list of candidates is known and ahead of the first MP’s vote today. A week ago YouGov had Theresa May leading on 36% to Boris Johnson on 27% and winning by 55% to Johnson’s 38% in a head-to-head contest. Since then Boris Johnson’s campaign has imploded and he has dropped out the race, so where do we stand now?

Asked their first preference Theresa May has the support of the majority of members, with 54% support compared to 20% for Leadsom, 9% for Gove, 5% for Crabb and 5% for Fox. Note that Michael Gove has gained little of Boris Johnson’s support, rather it is Andrea Leadsom who has taken over as the leading “Leave candidate” (in fact Gove’s behaviour appears to have utterly shattered his popularity among Tory members – a week ago 63% had a positive view of him, now it is down to 32%). In head-to-head contests May beats all comers with ease, but it is again Leadsom who comes closest. In a May-v-Leadsom final round May would win by 32 points, she would beat Liam Fox by 50 points, Gove by 51 and Crabb by 63.

Theresa May leads in every demographic group. Among members who voted to Remain she absolutely dominates, among members who voted to leave she beats Leadsom, but relatively narrowly. If the race becomes tightly focused on whether the candidates voted Remain or Leave, and Leave voters line up more strongly behind Leadsom it could get interesting… but currently Leave voters say they consider competence as PM and ability to unite the party as more important than how the candidates voted in the referendum, and in both areas May has a strong lead.

For the time being May is in a dominant position, but the fact that Leadsom is little known is in some ways an advantage: she doesn’t have negative perceptions to shed and Leave supporters can paint all their hopes onto her. If it’s a race about party unity and leadership, May has a strong advantage – she takes support from both Remain and Leave, and is seen as by far the strongest leader, the most suitable for the job of PM and the best in a crisis. If it boils down to Conservative party members looking for someone who voted Leave…

Full tables are here.


Tomorrow’s Times has a poll of Conservative party members about the forthcoming leadership election, showing Theresa May ahead of the supposed favourite, Boris Johnson. Asked who would they would prefer as party leader May is on 36% to Johnson’s 27% (Andrea Leadsom and Stephen Crabb are both on 7%, Liam Fox is on 4%). Party members only actually get to vote on the final two candidates of course, and in a straight contest between Theresa May and Boris Johnson current support stands at May 55%, Johnson 38% – a seventeen point lead for May. The full tables are here.

Theresa May appears to have had a good EU referendum campaign or at least, by standing a little aside from it her reputation has survived intact while most other Tory politicians have been damaged. When YouGov asked Tory members if they had positive or negative impressions of various politicians 72% were positive about May, up 4 from before the referendum. In contrast Boris Johnson was at 58% (down 18 since the referendum), Gove 63% (down 6), Sajid Javid 42% (down 8), IDS 54% (down 9), George Osborne 47% (down 21). She is also one of relatively few figures who is positively regarded by both those members who supported remain and those members who supported leave.

Part of the turnaround appears to be the perception that Theresa May is better placed to unite the party – 64% of party members said this was one of the most important considerations (up twenty points since Febrary) and May has a thirty point lead over Johnson on who would be better able to unite the party (46% to 16%). Given the current political and economic situation, she also has a lead over Johnson on ability to handle a crisis (49% to 18%), taking tough decisions (46% to 18%) and negotiating with Europe (32% to 22%).

Boris Johnson’s own strengths are still apparent though – he is seen as by far the best media performer and the candidate who best understands how to win an election. Both he and Stephen Crabb are ahead of Theresa May on who party members think would be most in touch with ordinary people. While the poll shows him losing in a May -vs- Johnson run off, they still suggest Boris would win in a run-off against Stephen Crabb (by 54% to 31%) or Liam Fox (by 52% to 29%).

This is, of course, a very early poll – it was conducted between Monday and Wednesday, so before nominations opened or the final list of candidates was confirmed. Party members don’t yet know what pledges and promises the candidates will make, what their detailed stance will be on Europe or other key issues. For less well known candidates like Stephen Crabb many members won’t know much about them at all. As the race begins though, Theresa May has the early advantage.