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Today, August 27th, Sir Ed Davey triumphed over competitors to become the leader of the Liberal Democrats after the position was vacated by Jo Swinson due to her failure to retain her Westminster seat in the 2019 General Election. Sir Ed previously stood unsuccessfully against Swinson in the 2019 leadership election.

Has there ever been a party leader who was similarly rejected by their party in a leadership election, only to succeed in a subsequent election?

The obvious example which springs to mind is Boris Johnson, however, although he received MP endorsements in the 2016 Conservative party leadership election, for example from Liz Truss & Jo Johnson, and "effectively launched" his leadership bid, he didn't formally enter the contest and eventually declined to stand.

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Yes, for example in the 1976 Labour Leadership election, Jim Callahan narrowly beat Michael Foot in the run-off (having lost to him in the first round of voting)

Michael Foot went on to win the 1980 election (This time Healy won the first round, but Foot won the run-off) So Michael Foot was rejected in ’76, but succeeded in ’80.

Similarly, Callaghan had stood unsuccessfully in 1963, and Wilson stood unsuccessfully in 1960.

In the Conservative party, things are less clear, as there is a tradition of the leader "emerging" from a consensus within the Parliamentary party, and there being no public election. It is only recently that the Conservative have held ballots of the membership. No unsuccessful declared candidate for the leadership of the Conservatives has gone on to win the leadership at a later time.

Finally David Owen became leader of the SDP in 1987 unopposed, having been defeated by Roy Jenkins in 1982.

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Since this question was asked, another example has occurred:- in May 2021, the DUP held a leadership contest after the resignation of its previous leader, Arlene Foster. In the bid to replace her, Edwin Poots defeated Sir Jeffrey Donaldson by 19 votes to 17 in a vote of party MPs & MLAs on May 14th.

However, just over a month later, Poots resigned as leader after the party refused to support his nomination of Paul Givan as First Minister. In the subsequent leadership election, Sir Jeffrey ran unopposed, and was confirmed as the new leader of the party on June 22nd.

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As you might expect in view of their large number of leaders since 2016, this has happened twice with UKIP.

Gerard Batten stood in 2009, losing to Lord Pearson of Rannoch, then sat out several leadership contests before being chosen in April 2018.

Freddy Vachha lost to Richard Braine in 2019 before taking over at the next opportunity in 2020.

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