This question as quite hypothetical as I don't believe it will come to pass, but…

There is an ongoing situation in which Theresa May, Leader of the United Kingdom Conservative Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is facing a leadership challenge. If she loses, she cannot take part in the subsequent leadership election.

It has been said that currently, the Prime Minister faces a rather impossible job. I can imagine many good reasons to not want the job. In theory, if there is a leadership election but no candidates (or no candidates with enough support to get their name on the ballot), what happens next? Will the position remain vacant?

  • 2
    There are currently sufficiently many guys (Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt, ...) that would probably want to be leader of the Tories making this question not very relevant for now, I feel. Dec 12, 2018 at 14:29
  • I think it would be an improvement to this question to find a way to ask it without the hypothetical assumption. The help-center guidelines discourage hypotheticals, but aside from that the question of political mechanics is interesting. Dec 12, 2018 at 17:34
  • 2
    Nature abhors a vacuum. There's always someone who wants power.
    – J...
    Dec 13, 2018 at 14:35
  • @J... Or, at least, feels a duty to do the job. Dec 13, 2018 at 15:57
  • 2
    This is like asking "What if nobody wants to eat the last doughnut?"
    – EvilSnack
    May 24, 2019 at 23:31

3 Answers 3


Conservative party rules require that the Leader is an MP. The party's constitution only requires that "There shall be a Leader of the Party, drawn from the Members of Parliament" It doesn't give any remedy in case no MP is willing to stand. It would be a big problem for the party, but no laws would be broken. The existing Leadership would probably remain in a caretaker role until someone is willing to stand.

In terms of the constitution, the Prime Minister and Cabinet must nominate their successor. Normally this would be either the next leader of her party, or the leader of the opposition (in case that she had lost a vote of confidence and the leader of the opposition had been able to form a coalition).

In the exceptional circumstances of there being nobody willing and able to form a government then surely MPs would have no confidence in the government, and a new election would be held. These would not be business as normal, and would probably lead to a collapse of the party. For all sorts of reasons, this isn't going to happen.

  • 6
    By constitution, you mean the constitution of the Conservative Party or of the country? IIRC the UK as a country does not have a Constitution.
    – gerrit
    Dec 12, 2018 at 10:28
  • 1
    The quote is from the party constitution. I haven't been able to find a link to a recent version online, but here's the 2004 edition. Dec 12, 2018 at 12:11
  • 9
    @gerrit the UK has a constitution, but it's not a single (amended) document
    – Caleth
    Dec 12, 2018 at 12:33
  • 4
    @gerrit The UK does have a constitution, it is just "unwritten". Which is to say, it is made up of the numerous laws, customs, court judgements and Works of Authority. And Parliament can pass new laws to "amend" this at any point in time. Dec 12, 2018 at 12:38
  • 2
    Huh... I notice that there is no actual restriction requiring that the Leader of the Conservative Party actually be a member of the Conservative Party - only that they be 1) elected to Parliament and 2) they be elected Leader by members of the Party (who were both members when nominations opened, and had been members for the 3 months prior to the ballot closing) Dec 13, 2018 at 12:51

The Prime Minister is appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the outgoing PM. Under normal circumstances, this is relatively straightforward: it's the leader of the party which, alone or in a coalition or other agreement, can command a majority in the Commons (or failing that, is likely to survive a confidence vote).

However, in theory (and, in the distant past, in practice), the Queen could appoint anyone to the post if they have enough support in Parliament. There's even no requirement for the PM to be an MP (there have been a number of PMs who sat in the House of Lords), though it's unthinkable that that would be allowed these days.

Also, the convention is that an outgoing PM does not resign until a successor is in place. So for example, Gordon Brown remained as caretaker PM for 5 days after losing the 2010 election, until it was clear that David Cameron would head a coalition government.

  • 1
    The last time something like this happened was with the Australian constitutional crisis in the 70s. It may yet come to pass that the Queen is involved - it's unlikely, but these are strange and stupid times, so we should not rule it out.
    – pjc50
    Dec 12, 2018 at 13:20
  • @pjc50: agreed. A key difference (IMHO) is that although a Governer-General, like the Queen he or she represents, does try to stay out of politics and avoid crises, a GG is not the Queen. By which I mean that GGs are often former politicians, they're elected typically by parliament, and they can be removed. My impression is that the UK Cabinet Office goes to extreme lengths to avoid involving the Queen in matters like this. History suggests that this isn't always the case in other Commonwealth Realms. Dec 12, 2018 at 13:28
  • 1
    "here's even no requirement for the PM to be an MP (there have been a number of PMs who sat in the House of Lords), though it's unthinkable that that would be allowed these days." I think it would still be possible to have a HoL PM, or at least it should be if people understood exactly what a PM is...
    – user19831
    Dec 12, 2018 at 16:08
  • @Orangesandlemons: depends what you mean by "possible". :-) Like so much of the British constitution, theory and practice are not the same thing, and unwritten convention can have the force of law. I'd argue that under "normal" circumstances, the PM would have to be an MP. However, If the UK were undergoing some grave existential crisis, then all bets would be off. Dec 12, 2018 at 16:11
  • 1
    @Orangesandlemons: you are right; I conveniently ignored Alec Douglas-Home - though he was appointed as PM on the understanding that he would disclaim his peerages and stand for election to the Commons. Hence he was PM while being a member of the House of Lords for 4 days, and PM while being a member of neither house for 20 days. Dec 12, 2018 at 17:13

In practice

The present rules state that the Conservative Parliamentary Party will select (from their own membership) two candidates that will then be voted on by the Conservative Party's general membership. For the record, it doesn't say that they have to be willing(!).

The current rules for electing the leader of the Conservative Party were introduced in 1998. The system gives every member of the Conservative Party a say in the election of the leader. In brief, the election system consists of two stages:

• Conservative Members of Parliament select a choice of two candidates to present to the membership of the whole Party

• Party members vote, on a "one member one vote" basis, for their preferred candidate from a shortlist of two

HoC Briefing Paper: Leadership elections: Conservative Party

It is simply inconceivable, given that there are potentially 315 candidates for the role, several of whom have stood in prior elections or expressed that they would like to become leader, that no two members would be interested in becoming leader of the party. In extremis it can be assumed that pressure would be brought to bear by the Whips Office, the 1922 Committee and the Chairpeople of the MP's own local associations to essentially force some members to stand.

In theory

The Constitution of the Conservative Party makes allowance for a change to the rules for the election of leaders. This requires only a simple majority of the Executive Board of the 1922 Committee. They could, for example, allow non-MPs to offer themselves for the leadership (such as the 248 Conservative Peers of the Realm, MSPs or AMs).

Upon the initiation of an election for the Leader, it shall be the duty of the 1922 Committee to present to the Party, as soon as reasonably practicable, a choice of candidates for election as Leader. The rules for deciding the procedure by which the 1922 Committee selects candidates for submission for election shall be determined by the Executive Committee of the 1922 Committee after consultation of the Board.

The 1922 committee could then nominate a single candidate who would then immediately become leader (although this would be politically unpalatable)

In the event of there being only one valid nomination at the close of nominations prior to the first ballot being held by the Parliamentary Party for the election of the new Leader, the election of the nominee may if so ordered by the Board be ratified by a ballot of the Party Members and Scottish Party Members to be held within one month of the close of nomination.

  • An uncontested candidate becomes leader automatically. This is how Theresa May became leader after Andrea Leadsom withdrew from the final two. Dec 12, 2018 at 17:15
  • @SteveMelnikoff - See edit.
    – Valorum
    Dec 12, 2018 at 17:15

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .