World / Politics

Backstabbing and constant change a feature of U.K. Conservative Party leadership contests


Prime Minister Theresa May’s resignation announcement Friday sets the stage for a leadership battle in her Conservative Party that will determine who becomes Britain’s next leader.

The election of a new party leader is a contest traditionally filled with twists, turns, bandwagons and backstabbing.

Here is a guide to how the unusual process works:

The process:

May said she will step down as party leader on June 7. She will remain in office as prime minister until a successor is chosen.

Nominations for her replacement close in the week beginning June 10.

The contest, which has two stages, should conclude by the time Parliament leaves for its summer break — set for July 20.

The first stage will see the 313 Conservative members of Parliament whittle the nominees down to two in successive rounds of voting in which the bottom candidate is eliminated.

The second stage will involve tens of thousands of grassroots party members picking the winner in a secret ballot.

Whoever wins takes over what may be one of Europe’s hardest jobs.

May has headed a minority government that has been rebuffed by Parliament on Brexit and British politics are in a state of flux.

The new leader faces a race against time to secure Britain’s terms of exit from the European Union, with the country otherwise crashing out by default on Oct. 31.

The new Conservative Party leader will pick up these pieces once formally appointed as prime minister by Queen Elizabeth II.

The contest:

The jockeying for position has already started as possible contenders build coalitions and some join the campaigns of others in exchange for private promises of future jobs.

Some British newspapers list up to 18 hopefuls in what could be a crowded field.

A few have more realistic shots at making the final two but many might run in the hope of a good showing that will merit a prime post in the new Cabinet.

In past contests, the successive rounds of voting have taken place Tuesdays and Thursdays. The party said it expects this part to conclude by the end of June.

The contest could go more quickly if candidates drop out.

The new leader is chosen by Conservative Party members of at least three months’ standing.

They mail in their ballots after listening to the two finalists debate each other across various venues over the course of a few weeks.

May skipped this stage in the July 2016 leadership contest because her last remaining rival, Andrea Leadsom, withdrew.

Leadsom’s resignation as leader of the House of Commons on Thursday pushed May toward stepping down.

The intrigue:

British politics are in tumult and few would dare predict how the whole thing might turn out.

Conservative lawmakers will be torn between backing contenders who best reflect their own views, nominees who can block someone they abhor from getting in the final two and candidates who can connect with British voters.

Those twists and turns give the Conservative leadership contests their drama.

The bookmakers’ clear favorite is Boris Johnson — an affable former mayor of London and former foreign minister whose views are tinged with a particular distaste for Brussels.

He is widely seen as the Conservatives’ answer to the surging Brexit Party of anti-EU populist Nigel Farage.

Ever since the party had its first leadership election in 1965 — before that, the leader simply “emerged” from talks among party bigwigs — the early favorite never wins.

That includes May’s victory in 2016: Johnson was the frontrunner before being knifed by running mate Michael Gove and dropping out.

Her predecessor, David Cameron, overcame the favorite, David Davis, in 2005.

The grassroots members who ultimately pick the winner are older and more socially conservative than the party’s millions of voters and, beyond that, the wider British public.

But they, too, like the country, have big divisions on Brexit — the key issue at stake.