British Politics

, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 63–85 | Cite as

The Conservative Party’s leadership election of 2016: choosing a leader in government

  • Thomas QuinnEmail author
Original Article


This paper examines the British Conservative Party’s leadership election of 2016, held in the aftermath of the UK’s referendum vote to leave the European Union. The paper analyses the contest using Stark’s theoretical framework, which assumes that leaders are chosen according to a hierarchy of criteria: acceptability, electability and competence, in that order. The eventual victor, Theresa May, was indeed the strongest candidate on all three criteria. However, electability appeared subordinate to competence during the contest. Electability is usually regarded as more basic than competence because parties must first win elections before they can start governing. However, governing parties are already in office and new leaders chosen mid-term must begin governing immediately. Current competence in office may be a prerequisite for future electability. The paper reviews other post-war leadership elections in Britain and finds that competence normally superseded electability as a selection criterion in governing parties. This finding implies a modification of Stark’s framework.


Conservative Party EU referendum Leadership elections Prime ministers Theresa May 

Supplementary material

41293_2018_71_MOESM1_ESM.docx (40 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 40 kb)


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GovernmentUniversity of EssexColchesterUK

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