Boris Johnson pledges to step down – but not with immediate effect
Boris Johnson has bowed to the inevitable and accepted he can no longer remain in post as Prime Minister following a torrent of ministerial resignations triggered by a chain of successive scandals and electoral drubbings over the past few months. In total, 59 MPs stepped down from a range of government roles over a 36-hour period kickstarted on Tuesday evening by the resignations of Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid.
Initially determined to hang on, Johnson and his allies eventually had to accept this simply wasn’t viable amid the resignations and calls for him to step down from across the Conservative Party and the wider conservative political ecosystem. The farcical nature of events was best highlighted by Nadhim Zahawi, promoted by Johnson to Chancellor on Tuesday night, deciding by Wednesday afternoon that Johnson’s position was no longer tenable. Zahawi did not resign however, unlike Michelle Donelan, also appointed to Cabinet on Tuesday night as Education Secretary, who did so this morning.
This morning the media were briefed that Johnson would resign after all, and just after midday UK time he duly appeared in front of No 10 in the presence of his closest allies to confirm this, accepting that “it was now clearly the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader and Prime Minister.” However, his statement raised many questions, not least regarding the timetable for his departure. Johnson said this will be set out next week and that he would stay on as Prime Minister until his successor is appointed.
In a move that took many by surprise, prior to his statement, he made a number of appointments to Cabinet indicating that he would not be stepping down immediately in favour of Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab as many had called for. There has been some speculation that he could try to hold out until the party’s annual conference in early October.
Beyond the concession at the beginning of his statement that his time in office will be coming to an end, the rest of the statement was quintessentially Johnsonian in its evasion of any personal culpability for what has happened. Johnson admitted he had tried to persuade colleagues it would be “eccentric” to depose a leader with such a large electoral mandate from the public at a time when the Government was “only a handful of points behind in the polls… when the economic scene is so difficult domestically and internationally”. He added he was unsuccessful in persuading colleagues of this due to a “herd instinct” at Westminster though he did thank the British public for the “immense privilege” to serve as Prime Minister.
What happens next – will Johnson be allowed to remain in post while his successor is elected?
All eyes will be on Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, the committee of Tory backbench MPs that determines the party’s rules, who will set out the process and timings for the leadership contest at some point next week. It remains to be seen whether Johnson’s decision to step down at an as of yet unspecified point in the future will be enough to quell the rebellion that has engulfed his party.
Even 24 hours ago such an announcement would likely have sufficed and would have been consistent with the precedent set by David Cameron and Theresa May. However, the sheer chaos and erratic decisions over the past 36 hours – including the vindictive sacking of Michael Gove as Levelling Up Secretary at a time when most of his Cabinet were calling on him to step down – has burned through a lot of goodwill Johnson may have had. Given his record on honesty and integrity, the very catalyst for his downfall, many in the party believe he simply cannot be allowed to operate the levers of power any longer, even on a custodial basis as his successor is elected.
Elections are due to be held on Monday afternoon to the 1922 Committee executive and it is highly likely that a slate of anti-Johnson MPs will prevail; they could yet try to change the rules in a way that will enable the party to eject him sooner. However, others who want him gone will also be mindful of starting a full civil war within the party with a remaining hard core of supporters who want to ensure he can have a dignified exit on something approximating his own terms. A compromise outcome is clearly in the party’s best interests, and it is likely this process is currently being negotiated by Johnson’s supporters and the party establishment.
Finally, the Government also confirmed today that it intends to progress its key legislative priorities before the summer parliamentary recess (21st July). This includes significant bills including the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and the Online Safety Bill. Given these pieces of legislation are closely associated with Johnson and contain many controversial provisions which subsequent leaders may wish to drop or adjust, it is not clear whether these bills can progress in their current form despite the fact that the Government still enjoys a large majority on paper.
How the Conservative Party leadership process works
In the first stage (known as shortlisting), Conservative MPs put their own names forward to participate in the leadership contest. In 2019, MPs wishing to stand needed the support of eight other Conservative MPs. The number of supporters needed this time will be confirmed next week amid speculation that given the wide field of potential candidates, the threshold to get onto the ballot will be raised.
MPs will then vote in a series of rounds to whittle down the candidates. In the first ballot MPs must receive at least 5% of votes (18 MPs), and in the second they must receive 10% (36 MPs). Those who don’t meet the threshold are eliminated from the process. For all subsequent ballots, the candidate who comes last is eliminated, until there are only two candidates remaining. In 2019, there were initially 10 candidates in the first ballot and six rounds of balloting were required before the final two candidates were known.
In stage two, the party membership is balloted on which of the two final candidates they prefer. This is done on the basis of one member one vote. The candidate who receives the most votes wins.
It is hard in the immediate aftermath of Boris Johnson’s resignation to look beyond the chaotic and unedifying way he has been forced out of office, seeking, initially at least, to ignore the constitutional norms followed by previous Prime Ministers. His supporters will say, as they have vociferously said whilst defending him from the many scandals he has faced, that he ‘got the big calls right’ on Brexit, the pandemic and Ukraine.
Johnson will always be remembered as the Prime Minister who broke the Brexit deadlock and took Britain out of the European Union, delivering the outcome of the referendum result six years ago. In so doing, he secured the biggest Conservative majority since 1987 and the biggest share of the vote since 1979, as he defiantly referenced in his resignation statement. Like Thatcher, he leaves office never to have been defeated at the ballot box. And as his resigning Ministers acknowledged, his Government delivered the vaccine programme and the furlough scheme that addressed the unprecedented health and economic impacts of the pandemic.
Brexit aside, Johnsonian Conservatism, if such a thing exists, was synonymous with ‘levelling up’. It is fair to say the pandemic derailed this agenda, absorbing Government focus and funding. But having promised ‘to build, build, build’, few tangible achievements across the Midlands and North are visible. An 80-seat majority offered the political opportunity for the radical transformation of Britain’s economic geography, but after three years in power, there will be only limited foundations for the next Prime Minister to build upon.
Detractors will say this was always going to be the outcome of a Boris Johnson premiership; vaunting promises, no grip or competence in delivery, combined with personal characteristics that erode norms of behaviour, damaging Government, the Conservative Party and constitutional norms. Characteristics that were overlooked or even seen as his greatest strengths – a focus on the ‘big picture’ and a tendency to glide through difficulties and controversies - became fatal flaws.
Assessments of Johnson’s character and integrity in office have already been made and are unlikely to change. The forthcoming leadership contest, however, will see some candidates focus upon Johnsonian policies even without the man himself. Others will seek to return to ‘One Nation’ Conservative values. Who comes next into No10 and whether they seek to build upon or draw a line under Johnson’s policy agenda, and whether they can retain the 2019 electoral realignment Johnson created, will have a significant impact on the long-term assessments of his premiership and his legacy, but more immediately, on whether the Conservatives will be able to win an unprecedented fifth term in power.