The Conservative Party was founded in the 1830s. However, some writers trace its origins to the reign of Charles II in the 1670s Exclusion Crisis. Other historians point to a faction, rooted in the 18th century Whig Party, that coalesced around William Pitt the Younger in the 1780s. They were known as "Independent Whigs", "Friends of Mr Pitt", or "Pittites" and never used terms such as "Tory" or "Conservative". Pitt died in 1806. From about 1812 on the name "Tory" was commonly used for a new party that, according to historian Robert Blake, "are the ancestors of Conservatism". Blake adds that Pitt's successors after 1812 "were not in any sense standard-bearer's of true Toryism".
The term "Conservative" was suggested as a title for the party by a magazine article by J. Wilson Croker in the Quarterly Review in 1830. The name immediately caught on and was officially adopted under the aegis of Sir Robert Peel around 1834. Peel is acknowledged as the founder of the Conservative Party, which he created with the announcement of the Tamworth Manifesto. The term "Conservative Party" rather than Tory was the dominant usage by 1845.
Conservatives and Unionists (1867–1914)
The widening of the electoral franchise in the nineteenth century forced the Conservative Party to popularise its approach under Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby and Benjamin Disraeli, who carried through their own expansion of the franchise with the Reform Act of 1867. In 1886, the party formed an alliance with Spencer Compton Cavendish, Lord Hartington (later the 8th Duke of Devonshire) and Joseph Chamberlain's new Liberal Unionist Party and, under the statesmen Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Lord Salisbury and Arthur Balfour, held power for all but three of the following twenty years before suffering a heavy defeat in 1906 when it split over the issue of free trade.
Young Winston Churchill denounced Chamberlain's attack on free trade, and helped organize the opposition inside the Unionist/Conservative Party. Nevertheless, Balfour, as party leader, followed Chamberlain's policy introduced protectionist legislation. The high tariff element called itself "Tariff Reformers" and in a major speech in Manchester on May 13, 1904, Churchill warned their takeover of the Unionist/Conservative party would permanently brand it as :
- A party of great vested interests, banded together in a formidable confederation; corruption at home, aggression to cover it up abroad; the trickery of tariff juggles, the tyranny of a party machine; sentiment by the bucketful; patriotism by the imperial pint; the open hand at the public exchequer, the open door at the public-house; dear food for the million, cheap labour for the millionaire.
Two weeks later, Churchill crossed the floor and formally joined the Liberal Party (he rejoined the Conservatives in 1925). In December, Balfour lost control of his party, as the defections multiplied. He was replaced by Liberal Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman who called an election in January 1906, which produced a massive Liberal victory with a gain of 214 seats. Liberal Prime Minister H. H. Asquith enacted a great deal of reform legislation, but the Unionists worked hard at grassroots organizing. Two general elections were held in 1910, one in January and one in December. The two main parties were now almost dead equal in seats. The Unionists had more popular votes but the Liberals kept control with a coalition with the Irish Parliamentary Party.
In 1912, the Liberal Unionists merged with the Conservative Party. In Ireland, the Irish Unionist Alliance had been formed in 1891 which merged Unionists who were opposed to Irish Home Rule into one political movement. Its MPs took the Conservative whip at Westminster, and in essence, formed the Irish wing of the party until 1922. In Britain, the Conservative party was known as the Unionist Party because of its opposition to home rule in Ireland.
Under Bonar Law's leadership in 1911–14, the Party morale improved, the "radical right" wing was contained, and the party machinery strengthened. It made some progress toward developing constructive social policies. Historian Jeremy Smith says Bonar Law was pushing hard—certainly blustering and threatening, and perhaps bluffing—but in the end his strategy proved both coherent and effective.
First World War
While the Liberals were mostly against the war until the invasion of Belgium, Conservative leaders were strongly in favour of aiding France and stopping Germany. The Liberal party was in full control of the government until its mismanagement of the war effort under the Shell Crisis badly hurt its reputation. An all-party coalition government was formed in May 1915. In late 1916 Liberal David Lloyd George became prime minister but the Liberals soon split and the Conservatives dominated the government, especially after their landslide in the 1918 election. The Liberal party never recovered, but Labour gained strength after 1920.
Nigel Keohane finds that the Conservatives were bitterly divided before 1914, especially on the issue of Irish Unionism and the experience of three consecutive election losses. However the war pulled the party together, allowing it to emphasise patriotism as it found new leadership and worked out its positions on the Irish question, socialism, electoral reform, and the issue of intervention in the economy. The fresh emphasis on anti-Socialism was its response to the growing strength of the Labour Party. When electoral reform was an issue, it worked to protect their base in rural England. It aggressively sought female voters in the 1920s, often relying on patriotic themes.
1929 Conservative poster attacking the Labour Party
In 1922, Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin led the break-up of the coalition and the Conservatives governed until 1923, when a minority Labour government led by Ramsay MacDonald came to power. The Conservatives regained power in 1924 and remained in power for the full five-year term. They were defeated in 1929 as a minority Labour government, again led by MacDonald; took office. In 1931, following the collapse of the Labour minority government, it entered another coalition, which was dominated by the Conservatives with some support from factions of both the Liberal and Labour Parties (National Labour and National Liberals). In May 1940, a more balanced coalition was formed, the National Government, which, under the leadership of Winston Churchill, saw the United Kingdom through World War II. However, the party lost the 1945 general election in a landslide to the resurgent Labour Party, who won their first ever majority government.
The concept of the "property-owning democracy" was coined by Noel Skelton in 1923 and became a core principle of the party.
While serving in Opposition during the late 1940s, the Conservative Party exploited and incited growing public anger at food rationing, scarcity, controls, austerity, and omnipresent government bureaucracy. It used the dissatisfaction with the socialist and egalitarian policies of the Labour Party to rally middle-class supporters and build a political comeback that won them the 1951 general election. Their appeal was especially effective to housewives, who faced more difficult shopping conditions after the war than during the war.
Modernising the party
In 1947, the party published its Industrial Charter which marked its acceptance of the "post-war consensus" on the mixed economy and labour rights. David Maxwell Fyfe chaired a committee into Conservative Party organisation that resulted in the Maxwell Fyfe Report (1948–49). The report required the party to do more fundraising, by forbidding constituency associations from demanding large donations from candidates, with the intention of broadening the diversity of MPs. In practice, it may have had the effect of lending more power to constituency parties and making candidates more uniform.
The success of the Conservative Party in reorganising itself was validated by its victory at the 1951 general election. Winston Churchill, the party leader, brought in a Party Chairman to modernise the creaking institution. Frederick Marquis, 1st Earl of Woolton, was a successful department store owner and wartime Minister of Food. As Party Chairman 1946–55, he rebuilt the local organisations with an emphasis on membership, money, and a unified national propaganda appeal on critical issues. To broaden the base of potential candidates, the national party provided financial aid to candidates, and assisted the local organisations in raising local money. Woolton emphasised a rhetoric that characterised the opponents as "Socialist" rather than "Labour". The libertarian influence of Professor Friedrich Hayek's 1944 best-seller Road to Serfdom was apparent in the younger generation, but that took another quarter century to have a policy impact. By 1951, Labour had worn out its welcome in the middle classes; its factions were bitterly embroiled. Conservatives were ready to govern again.
With a narrow victory at the 1951 general election, despite losing the popular vote, Churchill was back in power. Although he was ageing rapidly, he had national and global prestige. Apart from rationing, which was ended in 1954, most of the welfare state enacted by Labour were accepted by the Conservatives and became part of the "post-war consensus" that was satirised as Butskellism, and which lasted until the 1970s. The Conservatives were conciliatory towards unions, but they did privatise the steel and road haulage industries in 1953. During the Conservatives' thirteen-year tenure in office, pensions went up by 49% in real terms, sickness and unemployment benefits by 76% in real terms, and supplementary benefits by 46% in real terms. However, family allowances fell by 15% in real terms during that period.
"Thirteen Wasted Years" was a popular slogan attacking the Conservative record 1951–1964. Criticism came primarily from Labour. In addition there were attacks by the right wing of the Conservative party itself for its tolerance of socialist policies and reluctance to curb the legal powers of labour unions, thus making them complicit in the Post-war consensus. The critics contend that Britain was overtaken by its economic competitors, and was unable to prevent a troublesome wage-price upward spiral. Historian Graham Goodlad calls for taking a longer perspective. He argues that there were significant advances in transport, healthcare, and higher education. It would have been unrealistic to expect that Britain could continue as a world power after the huge expense of the Second World War, and the independence of India and other colonies. Goodlad says the Conservative foreign-policy leadership properly adjusted Britain's world role by building an independent nuclear capacity and maintaining a leading role in world affairs, and anyway successive governments seldom did a better job.
The Conservatives were re-elected in 1955 and 1959 with larger majorities. Conservative Prime Ministers Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home promoted relatively liberal trade regulations and less state involvement throughout the 1950s and early-1960s. The Suez Crisis of 1956 was a humiliating defeat for Prime Minister Eden, but his successor, Macmillan, minimised the damage and focused attention on domestic issues and prosperity. Macmillan boasted during the 1959 general election that Britain had "never had it so good".
In 1958, Geoffrey Howe co-authored the report A Giant's Strength published by the Inns of Court Conservative Association. The report argued that the unions had become too powerful and that their legal privileges ought to be curtailed. Iain Macleod discouraged the authors from publicising the report. Macmillan believed that trade union votes had contributed towards the 1951 and 1955 victories and thought that it "would be inexpedient to adopt any policy involving legislation which would alienate this support".
Macmillan's bid to join the (EEC) in early 1963 was blocked by French President Charles de Gaulle. The period saw the decline of the United Kingdom as a prominent world leader, with the loss of practically the entire Empire and a laggard economy.
Following controversy over the selections of Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home via a process of consultation known as the 'Magic Circle', a formal election process was created and the first leadership election was held in 1965. Of the three candidates, Edward Heath won with 150 votes to Reginald Maudling's 133 and Enoch Powell's 15 votes.
Edward Heath (1965–1975)
, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1970–1974)
Edward Heath's 1970–74 government was known for taking the UK into the EEC, although the right-wing of the party objected to his failure to control the trade unions at a time when a declining British industry saw many strikes, as well as a recession which started in 1973 and lasted for two years.
Since accession to the EEC, which developed into the EU, British membership has been a source of heated debate within the Conservative Party.
Heath had come to power in June 1970 and the last possible date for the next general election was not until mid-1975. However a general election was held in February 1974 in a bid to win public support during a national emergency caused by the miners' strike. However, Heath's attempt to win a second term in power at this "snap" election failed, as a deadlock result left no party with an overall majority. The Conservatives had more votes than Labour; but Labour had four more seats. Heath resigned within days, after failing to gain Liberal Party support in order to form a coalition government, paving the way for Harold Wilson and Labour to return to power as a minority government. Heath's hopes of returning to power later in the year were ended when Labour won the October 1974 election with an overall majority of three seats.
Margaret Thatcher (1975–1990)
Loss of power weakened Heath's control over the party and Margaret Thatcher deposed him in the 1975 leadership election. The UK in the 1970s had seen sustained high inflation rates, which were above 20% at the time of the leadership election, subsequently falling to below 10%; unemployment had risen, and over the winter of 1978–79 there was a series of strikes known as the "Winter of Discontent". Thatcher led her party to victory at the 1979 general election with a manifesto which concentrated on the party's philosophy rather than presenting a "shopping list" of policies.
As Prime Minister, Thatcher focused on rejecting the mild liberalism of the post-war consensus that tolerated or encouraged nationalisation, strong labour unions, heavy regulation, high taxes, and a generous welfare state. She did not challenge the National Health Service, and supported the Cold War policies of the consensus, but otherwise tried to dismantle and delegitimise it. To replace the old post-war consensus, she built a right-wing political ideology that became known as Thatcherism, based on social and economic ideas from British and American intellectuals such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Thatcher believed that too much socially democratic-oriented government policy was leading to a long-term decline in the British economy. As a result, her government pursued a programme of economic liberalism, adopting a free-market approach to public services based on the sale of publicly owned industries and utilities, as well as a reduction in trade union power. She held the belief that the existing trend of unions was bringing economic progress to a standstill by enforcing "wildcat" strikes, keeping wages artificially high and forcing unprofitable industries to stay open.
One of Thatcher's largest and most successful policies assisted council house tenants in public housing to purchase their homes at favourable rates. The "Right to Buy" had emerged in the late-1940s but was too great a challenge to the Post-War Consensus to win Conservative endorsement. Thatcher from her earliest days in politics favoured the idea because it would lead to a "property-owning democracy", an important idea that had emerged in the 1920s. Some local Conservative-run councils enacted profitable local sales schemes during the late-1960s. By the 1970s, many working-class people had ample incomes to afford to buy homes, and eagerly adopted Thatcher's invitation to purchase their homes at a sizable discount. The new owners were more likely to vote Conservative, as Thatcher had hoped.
Thatcher led the Conservatives to two further electoral victories with landslide1983 and 1987. She was greatly admired by her supporters for her leadership in the Falklands War of 1982—which coincided with a dramatic boost in her popularity—and for policies such as giving the right to council house tenants to buy their council house at a discount on market value. She was also deeply unpopular in certain sections of society due to high unemployment, which reached its highest level since the 1930s, peaking at over 3,000,000 people following her economic reforms, and her response to the miners' strike. Unemployment had doubled between 1979 and 1982, largely due to Thatcher's monetarist battle against inflation. At the time of the 1979 general election, inflation had been at 9% or under for the previous year, having decreased under Callaghan, then increased to over 20% in the first two years of the Thatcher ministry, but it had fallen again to 5.8% by the start of 1983 (it continued to be under 7% until 1990). The British economy benefitted in the first Thatcher ministry by tax income from North Sea oil coming on stream.
The period of unpopularity of the Conservatives in the early-1980s coincided with a crisis in the Labour Party which then formed the main opposition. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was established in 1981 and consisted of more than twenty breakaway Labour MPs, who quickly formed the SDP-Liberal Alliance with the Liberal Party. By the turn of 1982, the SDP-Liberal Alliance was ahead of the Conservatives in the opinion polls, but victory in the Falklands War in June that year, along with the recovering British economy, saw the Conservatives returning quickly to the top of the opinion polls and winning the 1983 general election with a landslide majority, due to a split opposition vote.
Thatcher now faced, arguably, her most serious rival yet after the 1983 general election, when resigned as Leader of the Labour Party and was succeeded by Neil Kinnock. With a new leader at the helm, Labour were clearly determined to defeat the Conservatives at the next election and for virtually the entirety of Thatcher's second ministry it was looking a very serious possibility, as the lead in the opinion polls constantly saw a change in leadership from the Conservatives to Labour, with the Alliance occasionally scraping into first place.
By the time of the general election in June 1987, the economy was stronger, with lower inflation and falling unemployment and Thatcher secured her third successive electoral victory with a second, albeit reduced, landslide majority.
The introduction of the Community Charge (known by its opponents as the poll tax) in 1989 is often cited as contributing to her political downfall. The summer of 1989 saw her fall behind Neil Kinnock's Labour in the opinion polls for the first time since 1986, and her party's fall in popularity continued into 1990. By the second half of that year, opinion polls were showing that Labour had a lead of up to 16 points over the Conservatives and they faced a tough 18 months ahead of them if they were to prevent Kinnock's ambition to become Prime Minister from becoming a reality. At the same time, the economy was sliding into another recession.
Internal party tensions led to a leadership challenge by the Conservative MP Michael Heseltine; and, after months of speculation about her future as Prime Minister, she resigned on 28 November 1990, making way for a new Conservative leader more likely to win the next general election in the interests of party unity.
John Major (1990–1997)
, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1990–1997)
John Major won the party leadership election on 27 November 1990, and his appointment led to an almost immediate boost in Conservative Party fortunes. A MORI poll six days before Mrs Thatcher's resignation had shown the Conservatives to be 11 points behind Labour, but within two months the Conservatives had returned to the top of the opinion polls with a narrow lead.
A general election had to be held within the next eighteen months and the UK economy was sliding into recession, but 1991 was a year of electoral uncertainty as the Conservatives and Labour regularly swapped places at the top of the opinion polls, and Major resisted Neil Kinnock's numerous calls for an immediate election.
The election was finally held on 9 April 1992 and the Conservatives won a fourth successive electoral victory, even though the economy was still in recession and most of the polls had predicted either a narrow Labour victory or a hung parliament. Major's vigorous campaigning, notably his claim that the UK would have higher prices and higher taxes under a Labour government, was seen to have been crucial in his election win (in which he became the first—and as of 2015, only—Prime Minister to attract 14,000,000 votes in a general election), as was a high-profile campaign by The Sun newspaper against Labour leader Neil Kinnock, who resigned in the aftermath of the election to be succeeded by John Smith. The Conservative Party also touched upon the issue of immigration, claiming that under Labour, immigration would rise hugely.
The UK economy was deep in recession by this stage and remained so until the end of the year. The pound sterling was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on 16 September 1992, a day thereafter referred to as Black Wednesday.
Soon after, approximately one million householders faced repossession of their homes during a recession that saw a sharp rise in unemployment, taking it close to 3,000,000 people. The party subsequently lost much of its reputation for good financial stewardship although the end of the recession was declared in April 1993 bringing economic recovery and a fall in unemployment.
Rail modal share (rail's share of total travel) 1952–2015
From 1994–1997, Major privatised British Rail, splitting it up into franchises to be run by the private sector. Its success is hotly debated, with a large increase in passenger numbers and investment in the network balanced by worries about the level of subsidy. Train fares cost more than under British Rail.
The party was plagued by internal division and infighting, mainly over the UK's role in the European Union. The party's Eurosceptic wing, represented by MPs such as John Redwood, opposed further EU integration, whilst the party's pro-European wing, represented by those such as Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke, was broadly supportive. The issue of the creation of a single European currency also inflamed tensions, and these would continue to dog the party until the early-2000s (decade). These divisions gave off an impression of a divided party, which had lost touch with the voters.
Major also had to survive a leadership challenge in 1995 by the Secretary of State for Wales, the aforementioned John Redwood. Major survived, but Redwood received 89 votes from MPs, as well as the backing of the Sun newspaper, which described the choice as being between "Redwood or Deadwood". This further undermined Major's influence in the Conservative Party.
The Conservative government was also increasingly accused in the media of "sleaze". Their support reached its lowest ebb in late 1994, after the sudden death of Labour Party leader John Smith and the election of Tony Blair as his successor, when Labour had up to 60% of the vote in opinion polls and had a lead of some 30 points ahead of the Conservatives. The Labour lead was gradually narrowed over the next two years, as the Conservatives gained some credit for the strong economic recovery and fall in unemployment. But as the 1997 general election loomed, despite their high-profile New Labour, New Danger campaign, it was still looking certain that Labour would win.
An effective opposition campaign by the Labour Party culminated in a landslide defeat for the Conservatives in 1997 that was Labour's largest ever parliamentary victory, and the worst defeat for the Conservatives since the 1906 general election 91 years earlier. The 1997 general election left the Conservative Party as an England-only party, with all Scottish and Welsh seats having been lost, and not a single new seat having been gained anywhere.
Back in opposition (1997–2005)
John Major resigned as party leader after the Conservatives were heavily defeated in a landslide and was succeeded by William Hague. Though Hague was a strong orator, a Gallup poll for The Daily Telegraph found that two-thirds of voters regarded him as "a bit of a wally", for headlines such as his claim that he drank 14 pints of beer in a single day in his youth. He was also criticised for attending the Notting Hill Carnival and for wearing a baseball cap in public in what were seen as poor attempts to appeal to younger voters. Shortly before the 2001 general election, Hague was much maligned for a speech in which he predicted that a re-elected Labour government would turn the UK into a "foreign land". The BBC also reported that the Conservative peer John Lord Taylor criticised Hague for not removing the whip from John Townend, a Conservative MP, after the latter made a speech in which he said the British were becoming "a mongrel race", although Hague did reject Townend's views.
The 2001 general election resulted in a net gain of just one seat for the Conservative Party, just months after the fuel protests of September 2000 had seen the Conservatives briefly take a narrow lead over Labour in the opinion polls.
Having privately set himself a target of 209 seats, matching Labour's performance in 1983—a target which he missed by 43—William Hague resigned soon after.
Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard
Iain Duncan Smith (2001–2003) (often known as IDS or simply: "Duncan Smith") is a strong Eurosceptic, but the issue did not define Duncan Smith's leadership, though during his tenure, Europe ceased to be an issue of division in the party as it united behind calls for a referendum on the proposed European Union Constitution.
However, before he could lead the party into a general election, Duncan Smith lost the vote on a motion of no confidence by MPs who felt that the party would not be returned to government under his leadership. This was despite the Conservative support equalling that of Labour in the months leading up to his departure from the leadership.
Michael Howard then stood for the leadership unopposed on 6 November 2003.
Under Howard's leadership in the 2005 general election, the Conservative Party increased their total vote share by around 0.7% (up to 32.4%) and—more significantly—their number of parliamentary seats by 33 (up to 198 seats). This gain accompanied a large decline in the Labour vote, and the election reduced Labour's majority from 167 to 68 and its share of the vote to 35.2%. The campaign, based on the slogan "Are you thinking what we're thinking?", was designed by Australian pollster Lynton Crosby. The day following the election, on 6 May, Howard announced that he did not feel it was right to continue as leader after defeat in the general election, also saying that he would be too old to lead the party into another campaign and would therefore step down after allowing time for the party to amend its leadership election rules.
David Cameron (2005–2016)
David Cameron won the 2005 leadership election. Cameron defeated his closest rival, David Davis, by a margin of more than two to one, taking 134,446 votes to 64,398. He then announced his intention to reform and realign the Conservatives, saying they needed to change the way they looked, felt, thought and behaved, advocating a more centre-right stance as opposed to their recent staunchly right-wing platform. Although Cameron's views are probably to the left of the party membership and he sought to make the Conservative brand more attractive to young, socially liberal voters, he has also expressed his admiration for Margaret Thatcher, describing himself as a "big fan of Thatcher's", though he questions whether that makes him a "Thatcherite". For most of 2006 and the first half of 2007, polls showed leads over Labour for the Conservatives.
Polls became more volatile in summer 2007 with the accession of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, although polls gave the Conservatives a lead after October of that year and, by May 2008, with the UK's economy sliding into its first recession since 1992, and a week after local council elections, a YouGov poll commissioned by The Sun newspaper was published giving the Conservative Party a 26-point lead over Labour, its largest lead since 1968. The Conservatives gained control of the London mayoralty for the first time in May 2008 after Boris Johnson defeated the Labour incumbent, Ken Livingstone.
The Conservative lead in the opinion polls had been almost unbroken for nearly three years when Britain finally went to the polls on 6 May 2010, though since the turn of 2010 most polls had shown the Conservative lead as less than 10 points wide. The election resulted in a hung parliament with the Conservatives having the most seats (306) but being twenty seats short of an overall majority. Following the resignation of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister and Leader of the Labour Party five days afterwards, David Cameron was named as the country's new Prime Minister and the Conservatives entered government in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats—the first post-war coalition government.
In May 2014, the Conservatives were defeated in the European parliamentary elections coming in third place behind the UK Independence Party and Labour. UKIP ended with 24 MEPs, Labour 20, and the Conservatives 19. The result was described by UKIP leader Nigel Farage as "disastrous" for Cameron, and the leaders of the other main parties.
In September 2014, the Unionist side, championed by Labour as well as by the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, won in the Scottish Independence referendum by 55% No to 45% Yes on the question "Should Scotland be an independent country". This can be seen as a victory for British Unionism, a core part of traditional Conservative ideology, and also for David Cameron as the incumbent Prime Minister.
At the 2015 general election, the Conservatives won a majority of seats in the House of Commons and formed a majority government under David Cameron. The party increased its national vote share, becoming the first incumbent party to do so since 1900. The result was unexpected and exceeded even the party leadership's expectations, as most polls had predicted a hung parliament. This was also the first general election since 1992 in which the Conservatives had won an overall majority, although the vote share of 36.9% was lower than the previous four Conservative majority governments under Thatcher and Major. In March 2017, the party was fined £70,000, the largest fine of this sort in British political history, after an Electoral Commission investigation found "significant failures" by the party to report its 2015 general election campaign spending.
On the morning of Friday 24 June 2016, Cameron announced his intention to resign as Prime Minister, after he failed to convince the British public to stay in the European Union, and subsequently the Conservative Party leadership election was announced with Theresa May, Michael Gove, Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom confirmed as the official contenders to be his successor with Boris Johnson ruling himself out of the process. After Crabb withdrew, Fox and then Gove were eliminated in successive ballots by Conservative MPs, leaving Leadsom and May as the final candidates to be put before the wider Conservative Party membership. Leadsom subsequently withdrew from the contest on 11 July.
Theresa May (2016–2019)
On 11 July 2016, Theresa May became the leader of the Conservative Party with immediate effect following the withdrawal from the leadership election of her sole remaining opponent, Andrea Leadsom. Appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on 13 July 2016, May promised social reform and a more centrist political outlook for the Conservative Party and its government. In a speech after her appointment, May emphasised the term Unionist in the name of the party, reminding all of "the precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland". May considers herself a one nation conservative.
May's early cabinet appointments were interpreted both as "centrist and conciliatory", an effort to reunite the party in the wake of the UK's vote to leave the European Union, and as "a shift to the right" according to The Guardian.
May appointed former Mayor of London Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd as Home Secretary, and former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis to the newly created office of Brexit Secretary. Liam Fox and Philip Hammond, who had both previously served as Secretary of State for Defence (Fox from 2010 to 2011 and Hammond from 2011 to 2014), were appointed to the newly created office of International Trade Secretary and as Chancellor of the Exchequer respectively.
Replacing Michael Gove, Elizabeth Truss was made Justice Secretary, the "first female Lord Chancellor in the thousand-year history of the role".
Andrea Leadsom, who was energy minister and May's primary competitor for party leader, was made the new environment secretary. However, former Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers resigned from Cabinet after May offered her a different, non-Cabinet post that was, she said, "not one which I felt I could take on". Nearly half of the first May ministry were women.
In her first speech, May made a promise to combat the "burning injustice" in British society and create a union "between all of our citizens" and promising to be an advocate for the "ordinary working-class family" and not just for "privileged few" in the UK.
In April 2017, the Cabinet agreed to hold a general election on 8 June. During the resulting campaign, Theresa May asked the electorate to "strengthen my hand" in Brexit negotiations, promised "strong and stable leadership in the national interest" and warned of a "coalition of chaos" under Jeremy Corbyn.
Contrary to opinion polling at the time, the election resulted in a hung parliament, with the Conservative Party having 317 seats in the House of Commons, but without an overall majority. The Democratic Unionist Party suggested it would be able to provide a confidence and supply arrangement depending on negotiations. On 9 June 2017, May announced her intention to form a new minority government with support from the DUP, which was finalised on 26 June.
On 8 January 2018, May announced her first major cabinet reshuffle, keeping in place most ministers, but promoting others.
In February 2019, three Conservative MPs – Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston, and Anna Soubry – defected from the party to join The Independent Group, a pro-EU political association of MPs founded by seven former members of the Labour party. The MPs said the reasons for their departure were their opposition to the party's handling of Brexit, what they saw as the takeover of the Conservative party by 'right wing, ... hard-line anti-EU' MPs, and lack of concern from the Conservative party for the 'most vulnerable in society'.
May announced her resignation from the leadership of the Conservative party on 24 May 2019, intending to leave the role on 7 June. However, she has remained Prime Minister until a successor was elected by the party.
Theresa May resigned as Prime Minister on the 24 July 2019 after her successor, Boris Johnson, was elected on 23 July 2019. She will remain as the Member of Parliament for the Parliamentary Constituency of Maidenhead.
In May 2018, the Conservative Party was accused of failing to take action on Islamophobia. The Muslim Council of Britain has repeatedly demanded an investigation, saying there are now "more than weekly incidents" of Islamophobia involving Conservative candidates and representatives. In an open letter, it tells chairman Brandon Lewis he must "ensure racists and bigots have no place" in the party. Former party co-chair Sayeeda Baroness Warsi also called on May to publicly acknowledge that Islamophobia is a problem in the Conservative Party, arguing that she has been trying to get the party to address the issue for over two years. The Conservative Muslim Forum also accused the Conservative party of a failure to take action on Islamophobia and joined calls for an independent inquiry. In addition, 350 mosques and 11 umbrella organisations across the UK have urged the Conservatives to launch internal inquiry into Islamophobia claims. In July 2018, the MCB repeated its call for an independent inquiry and accused the Conservatives of turning blind eye to Islamophobia claims. A week later Warsi supported this call, and warned the Conservatives were pursuing a politically damaging policy of denial about the problem in its own ranks. She accused Conservative chair Brandon Lewis of a "woefully inept" response to recent complaints and added that MP Zac Goldsmith should receive "mandatory diversity training" for alleged Islamophobia in his failed 2016 London mayoral campaign against Sadiq Khan. In August 2018, following comments made by Boris Johnson regarding the burqa/niqab, the MCB called the comments "particularly regrettable in this current climate" and reiterated its calls for an inquiry, accusing Johnson of "pandering to the far-right". In October 2018, recently selected London Mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey was accused of Islamophobia and Hinduphobia after it was reported that had written a pamphlet in 2005, entitled No Man’s Land, for the Centre for Policy Studies. In it, Bailey argued that accommodating Muslims and Hindus is one factor which "[robs] Britain of its community" and that the collapse of community is turning country into a "crime riddled cess pool". He claimed that South Asians "bring their culture, their country and any problems they might have, with them" and that this was not a problem within the black community "because we’ve shared a religion and in many cases a language".
Boris Johnson (2019–present)
On 23 July 2019, former Foreign Secretary and Mayor of London Boris Johnson defeated Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, with 66.4% of the vote in the final ballot of Conservative Party members, to become Leader of the Conservative Party.
Johnson became Prime Minister on the 24 July 2019 after his predecessor Theresa May resigned the same day.