The PM must not remain in Downing Street until the autumn. He should leave immediately and make way for an interim leader
The Times Leading Article, Thursday 7 July 07 2022
At lunchtime on Thursday, Boris Johnson finally bowed to the inevitable and announced his intention to resign as prime minister once a new leader is chosen. But he did so only after 48 hours of political bedlam in which more than 50 members of his government resigned and the country was on the brink of a constitutional crisis. Even then, his resignation statement contained no acknowledgement, let alone apology, for the egregious mistakes and misjudgements that brought his premiership to such an ignominious end two and half years after his landslide election win. Instead, he accused his party of “herd” behaviour and berated its “eccentric” decision to remove him when the Conservatives are only a few points behind in the polls.
What is truly eccentric is the idea that Mr Johnson should remain in Downing Street while the contest to identify his successor is held. On the present timetable, that could mean Mr Johnson keeps his hands on the levers of power until the autumn. This would be intolerable.
It is true that previous prime ministers who resigned midway through parliamentary terms, including David Cameron and Theresa May, both remained as caretakers after agreeing to stand down. But in a British constitutional context, these prime ministers were unquestionably “good chaps” who could be relied upon to act with honesty and integrity. Mr Johnson, by contrast, is leaving in disgrace, rejected by his own party for his persistent dishonesty, rule-breaking and flagrant disregard for the codes and conventions that underpin public life.
To allow a prime minister whose own ministers have just resigned en masse with no confidence in his leadership to remain in place cannot be in the national interest. There is no constitutional position of “caretaker prime minister”. Mr Johnson will retain the full powers of the office, restrained only by a weak cabinet that has never been able to exercise any restraint on him before. Indeed, some ministers may try to use this interim period to burnish their own leadership credentials.
Might Mr Johnson try to use this window to drive through tax cuts or intensify his confrontation with the European Union over the Northern Ireland protocol? What should be clear by now is that no assurances that he will exercise restraint can be taken at face value.
Mr Johnson is only able to contemplate remaining in No 10 because of the willingness of MPs to serve in his government after this week’s mass resignations. Some of those who have agreed to take up ministerial jobs may well believe that they are acting in the national interest and not just reviving their own careers.
It is true, of course, that the business of government must go on. At a time of intense economic and geopolitical challenges, the Conservative Party has an obligation to continue to provide stable government while it embarks on the search for a new leader. Nonetheless, those MPs could have refused to serve under Mr Johnson as prime minister.
The best solution would be for the cabinet to insist that Mr Johnson step down immediately in favour of an interim leader such as Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister who held the fort well when Mr Johnson was ill. Even now, the cabinet could deliver such an ultimatum. But if they refuse, or Mr Johnson refuses to quit, then the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers should follow Sir John Major’s advice and truncate the contest to select a new leader by scrapping the ballot of party members. That would at least allow a new prime minister to take office by the end of the month. Mr Johnson has shown over the past two and a half years, and above all again this week, that Britain’s loose constitutional arrangements are not safe in his hands. It would be reckless to leave him in place a day longer than necessary.