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Boris Johnson didn’t want to quit. So how did they get rid of him?

Prime ministers are not all-powerful — they rely on the support of their party colleagues in Parliament

A photo illustration of British newspaper front pages from July 8 following Prime Minister Boris Johnson's resignation. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Thursday that he would resign as Conservative Party leader, clearing the way for his departure as prime minister when his successor is chosen. This was inevitable, after a convulsive 36 hours, in which member after member of the U.K. government resigned. They were reacting to a scandal in which Johnson had appointed a party whip (to manage Conservative votes in Parliament) who had been accused of sexually inappropriate behavior. Johnson may have known about the whip’s reputation before his appointment.

This was only the most recent scandal to afflict Johnson, following his violation of his own government’s strict covid-19 lockdown rules in 2020. Many members of the public see Johnson as a dishonest politician without integrity. Many Conservative legislators came to share this perception. So how did they make Johnson resign, and what happens next?

The ruling party has power over the government

Britain has a parliamentary system in which the ruling executive (the government) emerges from, and is responsible to, the legislature. Usually — in 18 out of 21 post-World War II elections — one party wins a majority of parliamentary seats and can form the government by itself. That is what happened this time. After pledging to “get Brexit done,” Johnson’s Conservatives won the 2019 election with an 80-seat majority in the 650-seat U.K. Parliament, the party’s biggest majority in 32 years.

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That majority is important. It means that the government can win any parliamentary vote provided that its own MPs (Members of Parliament) remain loyal. That in turn means that most key political developments occur inside the governing party. The prime minister is the leader of that party. He or she has huge patronage power to appoint ministers, as well as setting the general direction of government and party policy.

There are limits to that power

However, prime ministers are not all-powerful. If they don’t have the support of their own party colleagues in Parliament, they risk being replaced. This week saw Johnson lose the last vestiges of support from Conservative MPs, who had grown tired of his scandals and general disorganization. They feared that Johnson would lead them to defeat at the next election if he were left in place.

MPs’ problem was that Johnson did not want to go. Contrary to some overblown media commentary, Johnson wasn’t doing what President Donald Trump did, trying to cling to power through unconstitutional means. Even if it looked bad, he was entitled to stand his ground until his MPs could demonstrate that he could not remain in office.

Dissatisfied Conservative MPs had tried to remove Johnson as party leader last month in an internal party confidence vote, but he narrowly won it. This week’s events severely reduced that support but party rules prevented another vote within 12 months of the last. That led MPs to start talking about changing the rules to allow another challenge to take place sooner.

However, Johnson’s opponents’ primary tactic was to target his authority as prime minister. They achieved this following the resignations of two senior cabinet members, the chancellor of the exchequer (the U.K. finance minister) and the health secretary. Both cited Johnson’s lack of integrity. Their resignations this week precipitated a full-blown crisis for the prime minister.

Johnson initially tried to ride out the storm, appointing replacements. His Conservative opponents responded by organizing a continual drip-feed of resignations on Wednesday, mostly by junior ministers, but by some senior ministers too. The result was the highest number of resignations from a British government (other than during a reshuffle) in a single day. More resignations followed on Thursday morning. These resignations destroyed Johnson’s authority, demonstrating that he no longer enjoyed the confidence of his own party. Indeed, people didn’t want to take jobs from him. He was unable to fill vacant ministerial positions.

There will be a new leadership competition

Johnson reluctantly announced he was stepping down as Conservative leader. The party’s processes for choosing a new leader involves two rounds of voting. In the first, MPs vote over the broad field of candidates. In the second, roughly 100,000 individual members of the Conservative Party vote to choose one of the two candidates who got most support from the MPs. This can take a long of time: it took seven weeks to select Johnson as Conservative leader in 2019.

Voting for the party leader is not the same thing as voting for the prime minister. British prime ministers are not elected but are appointed by the monarch, who conventionally invites the leader of the majority party in Parliament.

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Johnson would like to remain as caretaker prime minister until the new Conservative leader is chosen in the fall. Many Conservatives, including former prime minister John Major, oppose this plan, and are calling for him to resign immediately, given the scale of resignations and the lack of trust in Johnson. If they succeed in getting Johnson to resign, he could hand over to an alternative caretaker prime minister, most likely the first secretary of state, Dominic Raab.

None of this is likely to lead to a general election. A U.K. election is not due until 2024 and the opposition parties do not have the votes to force an early election by defeating the government in a parliamentary confidence vote. Even so, if the Labour opposition tables a motion of no confidence in a Johnson caretaker administration, Conservative MPs would be forced to support the government to maintain it in office, despite their lack of confidence in the prime minister personally. It would be one further embarrassment the Conservatives would be forced to endure.

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Tom Quinn is a senior lecturer (associate professor) in government at the University of Essex, U.K. (@uniessexgovt), and the author of “Electing and Ejecting Party Leaders in Britain” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

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