Conservative Party (UK) leadership election, 2001: Wikis


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The 2001 Conservative leadership election was held after the United Kingdom Conservative Party failed to make inroads into the Labour government's lead in the 2001 general election. Party leader William Hague resigned, and a leadership contest was called under new rules Hague had introduced. Five candidates stepped forward: Michael Ancram, David Davis, Kenneth Clarke, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Portillo.


Candidates and their platforms

Ancram stood declaring that none of the other candidates were close to his form of Conservatism, as well as arguing that he was best placed to unite the party. As the party chairman for the previous three years, he was widely seen as the candidate who best represented a continuity in the direction of the Hague years.

Clarke had previously stood in the 1997 leadership election but had otherwise maintained a low profile in the subsequent four years. It was argued that his non-involvement in the party's election campaign meant that he was free from blame. His manifesto involved taking a softer line on the European Union, allowing a free vote on many issues, while concentrating heavily on the economy and public services.

Davis was very much an outsider candidate, not having served on the front bench under Hague, though he had served as a junior Minister in the government of John Major. As Chairman of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in the previous Parliament he had gained a good reputation at Westminster, and his relatively unknown profile among the electorate was argued to be an asset.

Duncan Smith stood as the standard bearer of the Thatcherite wing of the party, arguing the need for the party to stick to its principles and take a hard line on the European Union, while making use of the talents of all sections of the party.

Portillo ran on a somewhat socially liberal manifesto, calling for the party to reform and reach out to groups not normally associated with the party, calling for greater involvement of women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals. His supporters, and the platform, were dubbed "Portilistas".


Prominent Conservatives who did not stand

There were several prominent Conservative politicians who did not stand despite speculation by political commentators preceding the election:

Contest rules

The election was conducted by the 1922 Committee, with that committee's chairman serving as Returning Officer. As the outgoing Chairman, Sir Archie Hamilton, had stood down from Parliament at the election, no Returning Officer was available for some time until Sir Michael Spicer was elected. This led to calls for the job of Returning Officer to be reallocated in future.

The rules required MPs to vote in a succession of ballots, with the lowest-scoring candidate eliminated each time, until only two candidates remained. MPs could vote for only a single candidate, but could change their vote each time.

The MPs' ballots

Portillo was the first candidate to declare and many commentators saw the contest as coming down to whether or not the party agreed with him, since his platform proved deeply controversial in some quarters.

The first ballot proved problematic. The results were as follows:

Michael Portillo was a candidate for the leadership of the Conservatives.
David Davis was a candidate for the leadership of the Conservatives.
First Ballot: 8 June 2001
Candidate Votes %
Michael Portillo 49
Iain Duncan Smith 39
Kenneth Clarke 36
Michael Ancram 21
David Davis 21
Turnout 166 100%

The party rules made no provision for a tie. As a result Michael Spicer ordered that a fresh ballot be held the next day and declared that if the tie prevailed then both lowest-scoring candidates would be eliminated. As it turned out, however, a few MPs shifted their votes and the next round's results were as follows:

Second Ballot:
Candidate Votes %
Michael Portillo 50
Iain Duncan Smith 42
Kenneth Clarke 39
David Davis 18
Michael Ancram 17
Turnout 166 100%
Michael Ancram eliminated

Ancram was now eliminated by virtue of placing last. There was speculation about Davis' position in the race, since even if every Ancram voter now supported him, he would still place last in the next round. He soon withdrew.

Also telling was that whereas Duncan Smith and Clarke had both advanced ground, Portillo had only gained the support of a single additional MP. His campaign was widely seen as losing momentum and commentators no longer predicted he would top the final round of MPs' voting, looking instead to Duncan Smith. The final round results were:

Final Ballot:
Candidate Votes %
Kenneth Clarke 59
Iain Duncan Smith 54
Michael Portillo 53
Turnout 166 100%
Michael Portillo eliminated

By a single vote Portillo was eliminated from the contest. It later transpired that he had been the victim of tactical voting.


The MP-only stage of the contest attracted much criticism. Many questioned the validity of MPs eliminating the candidates, potentially denying the ordinary members the opportunity to vote for a favourite candidate (Ann Widdecombe declined to run because she believed she would not reach the last round). Others questioned how it could be claimed that the eventual winner could be assured of support among MPs (the argument often given for previous elections being conducted by MPs only and now for holding these initial rounds) given that in the final round each had attracted the support of only a third of the Parliamentary Party. The potential for tactical voting also came in for question. On more technical grounds, the lack of provision of a tie and the delay in appointing a returning officer also sparked concerns, with the former point also leading to ridicule from political opponents.

The full membership vote

Duncan Smith and Clarke's names now went forward to the full party membership in a three-month contest that was at times acrimonious. The announcement of the result was delayed due to the attacks on 11th September 2001 but Iain Duncan Smith emerged triumphant, winning over 60% of the vote, although not a clear majority among MPs, which many believe hampered the inexperienced leader and led to the events which saw Michael Howard replace him in 2003.

Membership Ballot
Candidate Votes %
Iain Duncan Smith 155,933 60.7
Kenneth Clarke 100,864 39.3
Turnout 256,797
Iain Duncan Smith elected


Iain Duncan Smith's leadership was widely regarded as a disaster for the Conservatives, with the party's poll ratings declining to under 30% at times. After just two years in the job, IDS lost a confidence vote amongst Conservative MPs and was replaced as leader by Michael Howard. Howard went on to lose the 2005 General Election, improving on William Hague's performance in 2001 but still falling some way short of the 209 MPs Labour picked up in their disastrous 1983 campaign. Howard announced he was to resign the leadership, but first he would attempt to reform the electoral system to reduce the role for the rank-and-file party membership (he failed in this).

In the subsequent leadership election, the reformist David Cameron was elected as Conservative Party leader: although he had failed in his own campaign, commentators have since argued that Portillo's run in 2001 created the conditions under which his reformist agenda was able to succeed four years later.[1] By this point, however, Portillo himself had retired from parliament, frustrated with party politics.



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