How long does Boris Johnson have left as prime minister?
All of the ways that Boris Johnson could still be ousted as prime minister after surviving a vote of no confidence.
by: Marcus Wratten and Alastair Reid
6 Jul 2022
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Weekly Cabinet Meeting, hours before Sunak and Javid resigned. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street
Boris Johnson’s cabinet are dropping like flies after a year full of scandals, lost by-elections and a barely won no-confidence vote. But if he won’t resign, how else might he be out of a job?
Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid both resigned on Tuesday night, alongside deputy Conservative Party chair Bim Alofami. A string of junior ministers, parliamentary aides and trade envoys followed suit.
The Partygate scandal, a no confidence vote and two lost by-elections had many Cabinet ministers and backbenchers ready to jump ship but the Chris Pincher scandal has pushed many over the edge.
Pincher quit his post as deputy chief whip after getting drunk and allegedly groping two men in late June, lifting the lid on years of accusations of sexual misconduct. Downing Street repeatedly denied Johnson was aware of the rumours — or at least the specifics — when he appointed Pincher to the role in 2019.
Senior ministers were then instructed to go out in front of the country to deliver this line and defend their leader, only for a former civil servant to write to the parliamentary standards commissioner to say that Johnson was told “in person” about a formal complaint against Pincher in 2019.
It’s not just his Cabinet and ministers who have had enough. Polling suggests that the public are losing patience too. A snap poll from YouGov after the resignations found 69 per cent of voters want Johnson gone, and 54 per cent of people who voted Conservative in 2019 feel the same.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Nadhim Zahawi and Steve Barclay have stepped into the breach left by Sunak and Javid, while other cabinet ministers such as Nadine Dorries, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liz Truss have all publicly stated their support.
If he refuses to resign, as many inside and outside his party would like him to, how else might Johnson find himself out of a job?
A second no confidence vote from Conservative MPs
As it stands, at least one year must pass before a second vote of no confidence is held among Conservative MPs, meaning that rebel Tories may not get another chance to oust the prime minister until June 2023.
However, chair of the 1922 committee Graham Brady has said it is “technically possible” for the rules of the committee on no confidence votes to change, if the majority of the Conservative party want them to. This could allow for votes of no confidence to happen every six months.
Rebel MPs are already whispering in the corridors and sharpening their knives in advance of the election to the executive of the 1922 committee, scheduled for Wednesday July 13. If anti-Johnson MPs succeed in bringing a majority of their peers to decision-making roles there’ll be little to stop them changing the rules.
The Commons will break for summer recess a week after the 1922 committee election, however, meaning any change to the rules is unlikely to happen until MPs return in the autumn.
Parliamentary motion of no confidence
Leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey tabled a motion of no confidence in the prime minister in early June, but it has so far had only 15 signatories..
If passed it would enable all parties within Parliament, not just the Conservatives, to have their say on whether Johnson should be shown the door.
But as an early day motion, it exists largely to bring attention to an issue and rarely end up in a debate or a vote.
Even if the motion does go to the Commons it is difficult to pass, despite the 141 Conservative MPs who voted against Johnson in the party’s no confidence vote. Faith in the Conservative party is low, as witnessed in the two recent by-election losses, and losing a parliamentary no confidence vote would risk a general election which could end in disaster. Many Conservative MPs could see siding with the opposition as putting themselves out of a job.
The last time there was a successful no confidence came in 1979, when Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan lost by a single vote, leading to a general election. The winner then? Margaret Thatcher.
If Johnson’s Cabinet, made up of senior government ministers, feel that it is time for him to jump ship then they may put pressure on him to do so. To an extent, that is already happening, as we’ve seen from Sunak and Javid, but we’ve yet to see someone within the Cabinet actively seeking to usurp Johnson.
The most high profile instance of this came when Margaret Thatcher was forced out as PM after facing a leadership challenge from Michael Heseltine. After discussions with her cabinet, she withdrew from a second ballot on the leadership challenge and resigned shortly after.
However, in Johnson’s case, this seems highly unlikely. His cabinet ministers, from Dominic Raab to Liz Truss, have come out swinging in favour of the prime minister’s leadership, urging the party to move forward.
The other option available to backbench Tory MPs who are unhappy with Johnson’s leadership is to refuse to vote on government legislation.
This would leave Johnson’s government unable to pass laws and ultimately leave him with no option other than to quit.
This option also seems unlikely, however, with MPs who fail to vote when instructed to potentially “losing the whip” — in other words, being thrown out of the party.
MPs who refuse to vote when requested may also face being deselected by their local party, making them unable to stand at the next general election.
Upcoming investigation into whether Johnson misled Parliament
Partygate will continue to loom over Johnson’s head in the coming months, as the cross-party commons privileges committee carries out an investigation into whether he knowingly misled parliament about the parties that occurred in and around No.10.
Johnson has continually denied ever knowingly misleading the house, saying that he honestly believed all rules and guidance were followed by government officials throughout the pandemic.
If the committee finds that he did deliberately lie to MPs, the ministerial code has historically stated that “ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation”.
However, Johnson has recently rejigged the ministerial code so that ministers found to have broken the rules do not always have to resign. Many accused him of lowering the standards for politicians as a result, and the act was one of many reasons his own MPs turned against him.
The most certain of routes towards ousting Boris Johnson is the next general election, due to be held in May 2024. It’s a long way off and much could happen to the Prime Minister and his leadership in the meantime, but this is the next opportunity for the public to use their democratic power to get rid.
Intervention from the queen
The least likely option but still a possibility. While the queen does technically have the power to sack the prime minister, she has never and probably would never use it as this would be seen as unconstitutional.
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