Why Boris Johnson's Case For Remaining PM Was So Flawed

The prime minister was determined to remain in Downing Street – up until Thursday morning.
Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson
via Associated Press

Boris Johnson finally announced his resignation today.

It came after the most tumultuous week of his premiership, where a record-breaking number of Tory MPs resigned from his government in just two days.

As the resignations were streaming in, the prime minister still refused to accept that he needed to step down up until Thursday morning.

It’s thought a conversation with the head of the Tory 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, encouraged him to step away from No.10.

But even during his resignation speech, Johnson suggested that it was “the herd instinct” at Westminster which drove him out.

So what was his defence for staying?

He repeatedly justified his decision to stay in No.10 by referring back to the Conservatives’ 2019 landslide victory.

On Wednesday, Johnson vowed to “keep going” and said: “The job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances when you have been handed a colossal mandate is to keep going and that’s what I’m going to do.”

He also said the only circumstances where he would resign would be if “I felt it was impossible for the government to go on and discharge the mandate that we’ve been given” or if he thought the UK was “being frustrated in our desire to support the Ukrainian people”.

Johnson claimed that if he left his role, then the country would face three months of uncertainty before a new Tory leader (and therefore prime minister) was elected. He suggested that this was not what the country needed, especially during a cost of living crisis and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

He then suggested that a general election would be inevitable if he were ousted, because a new Tory leader would not have the same mandate as he secured in December 2019.

This defence came just a couple of weeks after he told the media he planned to stay on in Downing Street “until the 2030s”.

Even as he resigned, Johnson said that it was “eccentric to change governments when we’re delivering so much, when we have such a vast mandate and when we’re actually only a handful of points behind in the polls”.

Why did that defence not work?

The prime minister’s claim that the British people had voted for him, rather than the Tories, was not accurate – the UK does not have a presidential system.

Voters elect a local representative, an MP, and the party with the most MPs elected leads the country.

The individual who leads the majority party is chosen by the MPs themselves – meaning all prime ministers depend on the support of their MPs to stay in Downing Street.

Dr Hannah White, a constitutional expert from the Institute for Government told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme that Johnson “does not have a mandate”.

“The mandate is held by the Conservative Party. If the Conservative Party decide they want a different leader, then that is the person who becomes prime minister.

“The idea that there is any personal mandate – other than in a notional sense that he was the leader of the party at the time when the Conservatives won the election – is not constitutionally correct.”

Former chief whip Julian Smith (who is still a serving Conservative MP) also told the show that Johnson’s argument was “preposterous”, as it was the Tories who won in 2019 – not Johnson.

“And the bulk of those MPs who supported him following that election now don’t have the confidence in him to remain as prime minister,” he added.

The UK does not have a written constitution, but, as Smith pointed out, there is “a very very clear convention that a prime minister is able to stay in their role as a result of their confidence from the House of Commons and their cabinet”.

“The confidence has been lost and the challenge of our UK non-constitution is that the terms of him being there are not written, but everybody knows that the prime minister is there on the basis of confidence – and that is gone.”

What about the general election threats?

While Johnson still seems to believe that he is the primary reason the Conservatives are in power, polls suggest they’d lose if Johnson stayed in Downing Street.

YouGov polls suggest that Thursday that 84% of Tory voters also don’t want to have an early general election – and 59% want Johnson to resign.

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