Will Johnson resign?
Earlier this week, the UK Supreme Court ruled illegal the decision of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to suspend the work of the kingdom parliament. After that, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, Jeremy Corbin, and the head of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, said the prime minister should resign.
In facts in the article What happens if Johnson resigns? What if he doesn’t? writes that trying to shut down Parliament at a critical moment in our nation’s history isn’t just a minor, accidental breach of the law. It was a deliberate attempt to undermine our democracy. Sign this petition calling on him to quit. Resignation may even be in his narrow self-interest. After all, he has said he would prefer to be “dead in a ditch” than ask the EU to delay Brexit beyond the end of October, as required under a law passed by Parliament earlier this month. If he is no longer Prime Minister, somebody else will have to make the request. Based on what Johnson said yesterday, it doesn’t look like he’ll do the honourable thing. He said he wouldn’t resign. He even sought to make light of what should be a deadly serious matter, saying: “Donnez-moi un break is my message to those who say there will be no parliamentary scrutiny.” He doubled down on this in his first comments today – saying he was determined to quit the EU on October 31 come what may.
Parliament will sit again tomorrow from11.30am. Below we consider the various ways things could play out.
What if Johnson quits?
The first thing to note is that resignation is not the same as a vote of no confidence by MPs. As such, a process that could lead to a general election doesn’t automatically start ticking. Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, if a Prime Minister loses a vote of no confidence, there are 14 days to see if they or their replacement can win a vote of confidence. Failing that, there has to be an election. Johnson’s resignation wouldn’t trigger that process. A key question would be whether Johnson resigns as an individual or resigns on behalf of the whole government. This may affect who takes over.
Who would take over?
If Johnson resigns as an individual, the Queen may choose another Tory to take over. That’s what happened when both David Cameron and Theresa May quit. This situation might be different, however, in that Cameron and May also resigned as leader of the Conservative Party – and it was obvious that the new leader should also be the new Prime Minister. If Johnson stayed as leader of the Conservative Party – or if he quit that role too but stood down as Prime Minister with immediate effect – it would be necessary to find a caretaker Prime Minister. It’s not clear who that would be. A key question would be whether the replacement (say a Tory Brexiter such as Michael Gove) was willing to follow the new law requiring them to ask the EU to delay Brexit. If not, there would be further pitched battles in Parliament.
On the other hand, if the Prime Minister resigned on behalf of the government, the Queen would probably ask Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the opposition to take over. He has already said he is happy to ask the EU for extra time. So there would be no problem there. If Johnson passes the baton to Labour, he might immediately seek to unseat Corbyn by launching a vote of no confidence in him. But that wouldn’t stop the Labour leader delaying Brexit. After all, even if such a vote of no confidence succeeded, it would merely trigger the 14-day period under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. There would then be a hunt to see if somebody else – perhaps Ken Clarke, the “Father of the House” whom Johnson expelled from the Conservative Party this month – could win a vote of confidence. If not, there would be an election. And Corbyn would stay in Downing Street at least until after that.
What if Johnson digs in?
The Prime Minister might shamelessly continue squatting in Downing Street. What would the opposition then do? One option would be to launch a vote of no confidence to remove him. That would not, though, be sensible – as it would trigger the 14-day process. What’s more, Johnson might still refuse to budge. Even if MPs were prepared to back another Prime Minister in a vote of confidence, they would not have a chance to show it under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. There would then be an election – with Johnson still sitting in Downing Street for the duration of the campaign. If he also refused to ask the EU for extra time, we would have crashed out by the time the election was held.
There may be ways of avoiding this scenario. For example, the Queen could fire Johnson if he refused to quit. (She has the power to do – see section 2.9 of the Cabinet Manual). Or the Courts might instruct somebody else to ask the EU for extra time on the Prime Minister’s behalf. But why risk going down this route unless it is absolutely necessary?
The opposition might be better advised to take control of the Parliamentary timetable and pass new laws to restrain Johnson’s freedom of manoeuvre. They could, for example, change the Fixed Term Parliaments Act to say that a Prime Minister has to resign after losing a vote of confidence if MPs vote in favour of a rival – even before that alternative has become Prime Minister – and only launch a vote of no confidence after the law had been changed. It might also be a good idea to pass a law saying somebody else should ask the EU for extra time if the Prime Minister refuses to. The Speaker has made clear he will facilitate such a process. The opposition could also pass a motion saying Johnson was in “contempt of Parliament”. That might put pressure on him to resign.
Is an election a good idea anyway?
If Johnson goes – either because he quits or because the Queen fires him or because Parliament removes him – the assumption is that there would then be an election. But that would not be the best outcome. It would be best first to hold a referendum on Brexit. If there’s an election first, the issue of what should happen on Brexit would be muddled up with the question of who should run the country. If there’s a referendum first, the two issues could be decided separately. So it would be best if Parliament passed legislation calling for a People’s Vote. It would probably take six months to hold such a referendum. In the meantime, somebody would have to run the country. The opposition needs to start working hard on how to put together such a government.