Wednesday 6 July 2022

What if Johnson Refuses to Resign?

How many resignations is it now? Last I looked, the BBC tracker had it at 38. From the upper echelons to the lowest bag carrier, never in the history of government have so many careers been sacrificed to end just one. And yet, despite a bruising Prime Minister's Questions, a humiliating stint in committee, and cabinet members filing in and out of Number 10 telling Boris Johnson the game is up - figures that include Brandon Lewis, Michael Gove, and Priti Patel - Boris Johnson is sticking fast. No amount of soothing words, showy praise, nor threats of electoral armageddon can scrape him off the Prime Ministerial edifice. For Johnson, ego is at stake: the one holiest of holies that has remained sacrosanct in a career characterised by lying and opportunism.

As Johnson is determined to stay put, what happens now? Ordinarily, a delegation of cabinet members telling a leader they no longer have any confidence in them would mean curtains for a political career. But this is Boris Johnson, certainly among the most authoritarian Prime Ministers this country has seen and definitely the most reckless vis a vis the constitution and the unspoken conventions underpinning it. Johnson believes that if people desert government, there are plenty of others on the government benches eager for their turn in the spotlight. Also, most of his would-be assassins are his creatures anyway. He knows their moral compass is weak to non-existent, otherwise they'd be out of office already. No one typifies this more than the shameless Nadhim Zahawi. Appointed Chancellor yesterday, part of the cabinet delegation telling him to sling his hook today, and joining Johnson for a joint speech on the economy tomorrow, how many of these no marks have the guts to follow their junior colleagues out of the door knowing they're probably at the peak of their careers? Zahawi's example shows how many. Johnson knows these people have nothing and have no power or standing without him.

So much for one constitutional check on the Prime Minister. What else is there? The other avenue, which did the running and the riding all day before cabinet members visited Johnson was the 1922 route. The suggestion was the executive would meet, change the rules on no confidence votes, and threaten Johnson to hold a vote in the next few days. They didn't, thinking Johnson would be helped out of office by the cabinet. And that didn't happen, leaving the 1922 Committee to bring forward their executive elections so this can take place. Undoubtedly Johnson would lose - too much of the payroll and backbench loyalist vote have concluded Johnson is chip wrappings. But should a contest take place next week and a vote of no confidence is secured, would that force Johnson out?

You would think so, but unhelpfully the Tory party constitution is unclear on this. Part three, paragraph 10 says the leader will be drawn from parliamentary ranks. Okay. Schedule two (page 18) is singularly unhelpful. It says a resigning leader is ineligible to re-stand (no more pulling John Major's stunt to see off one's critics, like he did in 1995) and the 1922 Committee oversees the process. That's it. There is no constitutional route within the party to force Johnson out. The 1922's standing orders are private, and so we're forced to rely on the precedent of the UK's labyrinthine constitution. I.e. The Prime Minister is the individual who can command a majority in the House of Commons. As the Tories are the biggest party with an overall majority, a no confidence vote automatically robs the incumbent of this requirement. The position is then passed on to whoever can command a majority, which in normal times is whoever wins a Tory leadership contest.

The problem arises if Johnson still refuses to resign. That's constitutional crisis territory. There has been some concern that he could dissolve parliament and call a general election because that would be in his gift, and because there's no formal party procedure for removing a squatting leader he could use his powers under the constitution to sack his critics and hand pick the 635 candidates he needs. However, there is a brake on such a reckless move: the crown. Under the Lascelles Principles, so named after Tommy Lascelles, private secretary to the last King and the Queen 1943-1953, the monarch can refuse dissolution if an election would put the economy under significant stress, if Parliament was still capable of doing its job, and if an alternative figure can command a majority in it. All it would require is the Tories to appoint a caretaker and Johnson is toast. But while this is constitutionally right and proper, seeing its working out involve the crown - and the Queen particularly - in politics will raise issues of legitimacy. Which is just par the course for Johnson. What is constitutionalism next to his personal magnificence?

In other words, the mechanism remains to force Johnson from office if he decides to squat there. But by forcing politics down this route, the damage he will cause the party and the state can only increase.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Luckily! Let's all give three cheers - and breathe a sigh of relief!