What came to be known as the British Conservative Party emerged after what was the old Tory Party split in 1827 over the issue of Catholic Emancipation, and although it is often assumed that the terms 'Tory' and 'Conservative' are synonymous, the nineteenth century Conservative Party owed as much to the so-called Rockingham Whigs and their principal theorist Edmund Burke, as did to the old Tories. There is however some debate as to when the Conservative Party came into existence. Some date the event to 1828, when Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington became Prime Minister, some point to the formation of the so-called Charles Street Gang in 1831 or indeed the establishment of the Carlton Club in March 1832, whilst others would afford pride of place to the year 1834 when Robert Peel produced the Tamworth Manifesto. Opinions therefore differ as to whether it is Wellesley or Peel who should be accorded pride of place as the first Leader of the Conservative Party.

There is also the complication that there were entirely separate Conservative leaders of the House of Lords and the House of Commons who were both regarded as being of equal status. Naturally this led to some dispute, both at the time and since, as to which one should be regarded as holding overall authority, at least when the party was in opposition. Of course when the party was in government the individual who held the office of Prime Minister would have been regarded as the undoubted leader of the party. This distinction simply mirrored the constitutional position where both Houses of Parliament were regarded as being of equal importance, which remained the case until the Parliament Act 1911 firmly relegated the status of the House of Lords to that of a revising chamber, after which the party leader in the Commons was naturally regarded as having overall authority.

It wasn't however until the year 1922, as a direct consequence of the historic party meeting at the Carlton Club on the 19th October 1922 that rejected the principle of coalition with the Lloyd George Liberals, that the Conservative Party formally adopted a single unquestionable party leader. In the event it was Andrew Bonar Law was chosen as party leader as a result of a series of consultations amongst the leading members of the party. Indeed, although Law insisted that his position was endorsed by a meeting of MPs, peers and prospective parliamentary candidates, there was never any prescribed method of selecting the party leader, and for the next forty years or so it was the case that a leader 'emerged' as a result of discussions amongst the party's leading lights, or what was later dubbed the 'magic circle' by Iain Macleod. It remained the process by which Alec Douglas-Home was chosen as a leader in 1963 at which point it fell into disrepute, if only because it had clearly been manipulated by Harold Macmillan to produce the result he desired.

It was as a result of the widespread dissatisfaction with events in 1963 that Douglas-Home subsequently decided to introduce a formal election process for electing the party leader. Therefore from 1965 onwards, the leader was elected by a series of ballots of the Parliamentary party organised by the 1922 Committee, with the qualification that, at the first ballot a candidate had to obtain a majority over their nearest rival equivalent to 15% of the total vote in order to be declared the victor. In the event that no one succeeded in so doing, then new candidates were permitted to put their names forward in the second ballot, whilst at the second, and any following ballots, a candidate simply needed to achieve a simple majority to be declared the winner.

The first to be elected under this system was Edward Heath in 1965, followed by Margaret Thatcher in 1975. The requirement to achieve a 15% majority at the first ballot later became significant in 1990 when Michael Heseltine emerged to challenge the incumbent Margaret Thatcher. As although Thatcher came out ahead of Heseltine by 204 votes to 152, her margin of victory of 52 votes was short of the 15% (or 54 votes) required for outright victory, and she was subsequently persuaded this was insufficient to allow her to remain as leader. Oddly enough, although John Major only attracted 185 votes at the second ballot, he was then declared the winner after his rivals, Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd, both withdrew and endorsed his candidacy. This same process was again used at the back-me-or-sack-me election held on the 4th July 1995 when Major was confirmed as leader, and again in 1997 for the final time, when William Hague emerged as the eventual victor on the third ballot, defeating Kenneth Clarke by 92 votes to 70.

In 1998 the system was changed when it was decided to allow individual Conservative Party members the final say in the decision. The 1922 Committee now holds a succession of eliminating ballots until only two candidates are left, and it is those two names that are then put forward in a postal ballot of individual members of Conservative Associations where, naturally, the candidate who obtains the most votes is declared the winner. There is also a provision which allows an incumbent leader to be challenged if 15% of the Parliamentary Party put their names to a letter expressing no confidence in the leader. Both Iain Duncan Smith, and most recently, David Cameron were elected by this method, however in Michael Howard's case there was no need to invoke this process as he was the only candidate for the post.


1. Generally accepted overall leaders of the Conservative Party from 1828 until 1922

Bearing in mind that opinions differ as to whether Wellesley or Peel should properly be regarded as the first leader.

3. Leaders of the Conservative Party from 1922 to date

It is worth noting that whilst Winston Churchill became Prime Minister after the historic Norway Debate of May 1940, Neville Chamberlain continued to be the Leader of the Conservative Party until his death on the 9th October 1940.


  • Alan Clark, The Tories: Conservatives and the Nation State, 1922-97 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1998)
  • John Ramsden, An Appetite for Power: A New History of the Conservative Party (HarperCollins, 1999)

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