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Tuesday, 12 June, 2001, 08:23 GMT 09:23 UK

A cumbersome procedure

Nyta Mann

In a political party the period immediately following an election defeat is the moment of maximum instability.

William Hague's announcement on the Friday after polling day that he would be standing down as Conservative leader helped steady a punch-drunk and crisis-ridden party.

His action went some way towards stemming the tide of post-defeat recriminations - which, having led the party to its second successive landslide defeat, might have anyway otherwise swept away the Tory leader.

One legacy Mr Hague leaves is a new, untested procedure for electing a leader - he changed the himself rules in 1998. But it is a process that is neither smooth nor swift.

Despite the frenzy of leadership manifesto launches and campaign statements, officially the contest cannot even begin until the 1922 Committee, which represents Tory backbenchers, elects a new chairman - who presides over the leadership election.

Proxy battle

The last 1922 chairman was Sir Archibald Hamilton, who stood down from the Commons at the end of the last parliament.

The contest to succeed him is the opening act before the battle for the party leadership, and only finally takes place on Wednesday.

Given that it is the 1922 chairman who interprets and implements the leadership rules, the contest for the position can be seen as a proxy war between different Tory factions at Westminster.

Open to all-comers

Once it is out of the way, the formal business of electing a successor to Mr Hague begins. Needless to say, the jockeying for position has been well under way for some time.

Any Tory MP can throw his or her hat into the leadership ring, requiring just a proposer and seconder. Then a secret ballot of the Conservative parliamentary party is held.

If there are more than three contestants, the one winning the lowest number of votes is eliminated from the contest.

Two days later, a second ballot is held - and so on, on successive Tuesdays and Thursdays, until a shortlist of two emerges.

It is only at this stage that the Tory Party at large gets involved, with a postal ballot of paid-up members choosing between the two survivors.

The "bottle-neck" to get on that final shortlist of two is the hurdle that put paid to Ann Widdecombe's leadership hopes.

Her popularity among the party rank and file was not reflected in the parliamentary party, thus ensuring the Tory grassroots would probably not have got the chance to vote for her even if she had joined the leadership race.

Those contenders that have entered it are permitted to advertise in the press, provided the full commercial rate is paid. No reference to rival candidates is allowed in any adverts.

Spending by any candidate on their campaign is limited to 100,000, expenses must be detailed to the 1922 chairman and made available for inspection by party members, and no hopeful can fund their own campaign: all spending must come from donations - which must also be disclosed.

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