Gaming a Tory leadership election

It was a lot easier when he stood.
It was a lot easier when he stood.
A Facebook discussion I was in the other day ended up talking about the mechanics of Tory leadership elections, and it prompted a few thoughts. Just to be clear, these are all about electoral strategy for candidates in that putative election, not about their policies or personalities except in as much as they might influence their strategy.

A leadership election is a two-stage process. In the first round, MPs nominate candidates and then a series of eliminative ballots are held. The candidate with the least votes in each ballot drops out until only two candidates remain. Those two then go to a ballot of the party membership which decides the victor. If only two candidates are nominated, the process jumps straight to the membership ballot, if only one candidate is nominated (as happened with Michael Howard in 2003) they’re elected unopposed. Another important point to note is that there’s no provision for candidates to enter the race after the initial close of nominations – despite media speculation, the rules don’t allow for a stalking horse election.

Even without stalking horses, there’s still plenty of scope for strategy within the initial stage of the process. Candidates are not only concerned about getting themselves into the membership ballot but also who they’ll face while they’re there. This can be seen in the final MP ballot of the 2001 election where several of Iain Duncan Smith’s supporters reportedly backed Ken Clarke in an effort to ensure that it was Clarke, and not Michael Portillo, who Duncan Smith would face in the membership ballot. (It was perhaps a foretaste of his abilities as a leader that the scheme came close to a horrendous backfire as enough of them switched to Clarke that he only beat Portillo by a single vote)

The interesting effect of this system is that while they can’t end up with someone supported by a small group of MPs become their leader, it is possible to become leader if you can get a third plus one of the Conservative MPs to support you. With current numbers, that’s 111 MPs. If you can rely on that many supporting you, there’s no way that you can be stopped from getting into the membership ballot. Every vote short of that target makes it easier for your opponents to co-ordinate their strategy and block you.

This presents us with an interesting situation if we have a candidate who only has limited popularity with the MPs, but is popular with the membership. Assuming that candidate can persuade around a third of the MPs to back them, the other challengers face three options: they can try and coordinate their voters to exclude the other candidate from the membership ballot; they can fight it out between them for the remaining two-thirds of the electorate and see who does best; or they can agree to rally behind one candidate. The latter option would be accepting that the candidate with membership support would be on the membership ballot, but would ensure that his rival is seen as the clear choice of the MPs in the hope members would react positively to a candidate with clear Parliamentary support.

To illustrate this, assume a contest has got down to the final three candidates: A, B and C. A and B both believe that C is more popular with the membership than they are, so would prefer them not to face the membership. Both A and B would also prefer the other to C given the chance, and think they would have the chance to beat them in the membership ballot. Their best course of action depends on how popular they think C is amongst the MPs. If they think C has the support of less than a hundred MPs, it makes sense for them to keep competing with each other as both are still likely to beat C and make it to the membership ballot. If C is more popular, but still short of 111 MPs, then there is an incentive for them to co-ordinate their voters so that both of them still get more than C. If, however, they’re sure that C will get 111 or more MPs supporting them, then the incentive becomes to pick one of A or B to give them a resounding victory in the final MP ballot and go to the members as the clear choice of the Parliamentary party, in the hope that will help them beat C.

Where this gets interesting is that these courses of action give C an incentive to make their support look smaller than it is. If we assume there have been more than three candidates, and there have been other MP ballots before, it’s in C’s interest to get enough support to make it through to the final three and no more. The further A and B believe C is from having 111 MPs backing them, the less incentive there is for A and B to co-ordinate to stop C. C thus has an incentive to hide their real number of supporters until the final round in order to create their best scenario for winning: getting themselves on the membership ballot without a strong ‘unity’ candidate against them.

In other words, when the next Tory leadership election comes around, expect there to be lots of shenanigans and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring where the actual vote tallies may not reflect the real support candidates have. It’ll be fun to watch, if you can forget that whoever emerges from it all will likely be leading the country afterwards.

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