What Will (And Won’t) Make Boris Johnson Actually Go

All is well in England, or more precisely, all is well enough, now that the unprecedented mass resignation of Boris Johnson’s cabinet over the 48 eventful hours that resulted in an equally unprecedented—but characteristically combative—resignation speech from Britian’s most entertaining and most rambunctious prime minister in a generation.

In all, some 59 Members of Parliament resigned from the government. Johnson’s July 7 speech was predictably pyrrhic: It was delivered from the top of a smoldering heap of what had been a fractious, but nevertheless heavily mandated, Conservative government. As one would expect of a classically-educated Eton and Oxford rhetorician, he spoke of the privilege it had been to serve.

But he didn’t exactly back up the moving van.

Yes, a seemingly impatient Johnson stressed that a new cabinet was being formed. And yes, he reassured the nation that its government will continue to function. Oh, and by the way, there would be an election called, the date of which will be announced in the coming week. All good. With his wife, Carrie, and their new daughter looking on from the sidelines, Johnson strongly implied in closing that there was, simply, a ton of work waiting for him. Then he thanked everybody, turned and marched right back up the steps of No. 10.

And he was right: There is in fact lot to do before the wheels of the Conservative Party, Parliament and the prime minister himself actually cobble together either a) the ordinarily-scheduled party conference in October, or b) an actual election that could finally usher Johnson out the excellently-enameled shiny black door of No. 10 Downing Street.

Suffice it to say that, though he has been cornered and/or has been busy cornering himself in many ways before, Johnson hasn’t been at a crux of quite this import before, in a set of chains this specific and total, what with a full British cabinet mutiny burning white-hot in his hands and his party calling for his head. But Johnson has shown historic resilience at various points in his greater political biography and in this past three years as prime minister, during which his political footing was never quite as solid as he might have wanted it to seem.

So, for now, two clear paths exist for an orderly transfer of power in the UK’s constitutional monarchy. The first would be an official Conservative Party vote at the conference in October, which would theoretically fully oust Johnson, after which an election would be called. The second, more direct but no less fraught route would involve a decision by the prime minister (alone) to call for an early general election. Johnson stated as much in his speech before No. 10 on July 7.

There remains a third, last path that this careening gyroscope of the Johnson devolution could travel: The Queen could, at any time, simply bow to the massive political fallout hanging in the air over London and ask him to go. But the picture of Johnson forcing the Queen’s hand in this way at this moment in an already unprecedented tornado of political jousting in Westminster would be, even for the oft-wittingly and occasionally unwittingly brazen Mr. Johnson, a new level. And that may not be one he would like to attain.

Precisely in that second circumstance is where the political machinery of staging elections in the UK gets tricky. To call for a general election in the UK, Parliament must be dissolved and then recalled. That was once a monarchical responsibility, exercised on the instigation of the prime minister. In 2011, that policy was modified by the Fixed-term Parliamentary Act (FTPA, for short), giving to Parliament the power to dissolve itself and call an election, requiring a two-thirds majority to get the election up and rolling. On cue, in March 2022, the Conservative Party successfully passed legislation that repealed the FTPA, reverting the power to dissolve Parliament and call an election to the prime minister.

The 2011 FTPA had, according to Conservative thinking, been the incendiary technical problem causing all the fire-juggling in getting Brexit ratified in 2019, which ratification the Conservatives very much wanted. In short, prior to the current crisis in the Johnson government, the Conservative line was that not enough power resided in Johnson’s hands in 2019. So, it took them three years, but they just re-invested the power of dissolving Parliament and calling an election back upon the controversial prime minister this past March.

Given the current governmental crisis: Oops!

Because, theoretically, that re-investment of Johnson with the power to call an election means that he can be said to be—having technically now but not fully resigned—more in control of the moment he departs. And, of course, no matter what happens at the October Conservative Party conference, the result of any general election is, at the moment, highly up for grabs. Would that vote test his popularity among the general public against what he on July 7 called the “herd mentality” in Parliament baying for his immediate ouster? It’s a safe bet that it would, though, given the volume of outcry in Parliament now, it’s by no means a foregone conclusion that such an election, if positive for him, would abrogate his ouster. The UK’s Institute for Government estimates that prime ministers receive a rather nice 12% boost (in parliamentary seats) in elections that they call.

It’s an axiom in the Johnsonian playbook that, as events turn bleak, he can transform himself into a rather comedic, wholly human (sort-of) action-man, and that quality has generally endeared him to the British polity for years, no matter what level of foolishness he has engendered to bring the situation about. That turn of foot is what led one of his fellow MPs to reportedly describe Johnson in entomological terms this week: “He’s like a cockroach in a nuclear apocalypse.”

What’s unclear in that assessment is whether it was said as a damnation of the prime minister’s otherworldly talents for political survival—or in admiration of them.

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