A Graceless FallThe Dangers That Remain in the Twilight of Johnson’s Reign
Chaotic, self-centred and unpredictable, Boris Johnson is still a constitutional conundrum, says Rachel Morris
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While crowds swayed outside Downing Street last week, singing “bye bye Boris”, commentators were wondering whether Boris Johnson really had resigned.
This is a natural outcome of the still-Prime Minister’s track record of believability, combined with the weasel words that accompanied his ‘resignation’ speech.
Johnson’s speech notably didn’t contain the word “resign”, though to be fair, it wasn’t required to. Other things it lacked included veracity, contrition, and any understanding of why things had come to such a pass for the Prime Minister who had faced more resignations than any other in history. It was more like a hustings speech than a swan song, with a soupçon of sulk and a crude Americanism: “Them’s the breaks”.
What happened next, or didn’t, raised suspicions. The common mental image of a prime ministerial resignation involves them climbing into a shiny black car, destination Buckingham Palace, to tender it to the Queen: the ‘Thatcher’s tears’ model, if you will.
Section 2.8 of the Cabinet Manual states: “If the Prime Minister resigns on behalf of the Government, the Sovereign will invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government.”
This explains the current confusion. The ‘Thatcher’s tears’ moment only happens when a Prime Minister is departing immediately, usually after a general election. Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May stood down in mid-parliament, and all remained in office until the selection of a successor. Gordon Brown stayed after the election produced a hung parliament, resigning only after fruitless attempts at forming a Labour-led coalition government.
A journalist of the time, a Mr B. Johnson of The Telegraph, wrote of Brown: “He is… like David Brent haunting ‘The Office’ in that excruciating episode when he refuses to acknowledge that he has been sacked. Isn’t there someone… whose job it is to tell him that the game is up?”
So it is normal for Johnson to stay, and not head straight for the Palace. Having said that, while he was reported to have touched on the convention by telephoning the Queen, Buckingham Palace declined to comment. That is unusual.
It wouldn’t be the first time he put the Monarch in a constitutionally-compromised position, after all. He illegally prorogued Parliament, twice spoke publicly about their meant-to-be-private meetings, and was forced to apologise for a party continuing unlawfully during lockdown until just hours before she attended her husband’s funeral masked and alone.
In Johnson’s speech, he said he’d remain as a “caretaker” Prime Minister until October. This raised hackles, as the concept is unfamiliar in the UK – Belgium was once without a government for 589 days but retained a caretaker outgoing Prime Minister – and gave the impression of an undelimited remain. Leave means leave, was the widespread refrain.
Concerns also arise from Johnson’s image as ‘Britain Trump’ – raising echoes of another nation’s former leader, who even now drags his feet about leaving office. And a caretaker is meant to be in place to promote stability, whereas there are fears that Johnson remaining will create further instability, including via his resignation honours list.
He is rumoured to be planning on granting membership of our unelected second house to hollow-brained devotee Nadine Dorries and even his own father. After losing his party’s support and being forced out of office because he ignored credible reports of sexual predation, should he retain the power to ennoble anyone, regardless of their suitability, granting them the power to appraise and approve laws affecting every citizen? Is this ‘caretaking’? Should he retain powers at all?
A Hollow Mandate
In theory, until he descends upon the Queen, Johnson holds significant powers.
The Cabinet Manual section 2.27 states that:
“While the government retains its responsibility to govern and ministers remain in charge of their departments, governments are expected by convention to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character… essential business must be allowed to continue.”
So Johnson is expected not to introduce substantively new policies – though this is governed by convention, not law. Labour has called for a parliamentary vote of no confidence to remove him immediately – initially rejected but now accepted by the Government – but this is unlikely to succeed given the size of the Conservative majority.
In a Sky News interview, Johnson said that his job was to continue to “discharge the mandate”. Therein lies the problem. Most of his time in office has been spent breaking the promises in his party’s 2019 manifesto and pursuing outcomes not mentioned in that manifesto. And partying.
He’s also implying that a mandate was given to him by the country as if he’s an American-style president. His only mandate came from the roughly 25,000 people who voted for him in Uxbridge and South Ruislip (out of an overall local electorate of 72,000), more of whom, if current polls are to be believed, want shot of him than not.
Each minister takes an oath on becoming a member of the Privy Council. Johnson has repeatedly breached this oath, without contrition or consequence, with the opprobrium of a largely compliant press.
It’s hard to trust a man who has proven so untrustworthy; the first Prime Minister in history to be charged for breaking laws while in office; a man who finally admitted to meeting with a former KGB officer with no officials present, while he was Foreign Secretary, days after a crucial NATO summit discussing the Salisbury poisonings.
Is it any wonder that many distrust his declared resignation? That there are suppositions as to the trouble he could cause each day that remains in his first term? The man who, only weeks ago, was speaking of his third term?
Dominic Cummings, his consigliere-turned-saboteur, tweeted, “if MPs leave him in situ there’ll be CARNAGE”. Former Prime Minister John Major has warned that it’s dangerous to leave him in office any longer.
We just never know with Johnson. That’s not paranoia; it’s history. Should the COVID pandemic ramp up yet further, the spread of Monkeypox become worse, war in Ukraine escalate, the Queen pass away – any number of things could conceivably cause him to dig in and become a squatter. Ultimately, it would be up to his party or the Monarch to stop him. That’s not democracy.
By these lights, Johnson must go now. His judgment, honesty, integrity, and faithfulness to his oath were found wanting by more than 50 of his own ministers. He’s a national security risk who’s acted to reduce transparency and accountability throughout his tenure. Should he remain one more day in control of the public’s purse and fate? Isn’t there someone… whose job it is to tell him that the game is up?
Everything that happens in the next few months hinges on the whims of a known lawbreaker with vast appetites and a seeping narcissistic injury. Boris Johnson has proved himself to be, quite literally, unconventional. And them’s the breaks, I’m afraid.
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