How Do You Solve A Problem Like Boris?

Westminster is in turmoil. The news that Boris Johnson appointed Chris Pincher as Deputy Chief Whip even though he knew Pincher had been accused of sexual misconduct has fanned the flames of discontent within the Conservative Party. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Health Secretary resigned in protest yesterday, kicking off a mass exodus of ministers from all levels of government. Various figures within the party have also called on Johnson to resign, both publicly and privately. However, he appears determined to cling to office.

If Johnson can’t be persuaded to step down, the best way to get rid of him would be for the House of Commons to resolve that it has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.[1] By convention, a Prime Minister who loses a confidence vote must either resign or seek a dissolution. If he failed to do either, the Queen would be justified in dismissing him.

But what if Johnson asked for a dissolution after losing a confidence vote–should the Queen grant it? The present situation is unusual in that the Government enjoys a sizable majority (in modern times, only minority governments have been defeated on confidence votes[2]). This means that another Tory MP could conceivably form a viable government, and under the Lascelles Principles, the Sovereign can refuse a dissolution if they believe they can find another premier.

However, as Anne Twomey has pointed out, “[b]eing entitled to refuse a dissolution does not mean the Head of State is obliged to do so, nor that he or she necessarily should do so.[3]” The advantage to a dissolution is that it puts the issue in the hands of the electorate. The last General Election was in 2019, so it wouldn’t be outlandish to go to the voters at this point. Attempting to find an alternative Prime Minister could also embroil the Crown in political controversy. There’s no obvious candidate at the moment, and the Palace will be keen to avoid a situation where the Queen effectively chooses the leader of the Conservative Party.[4] It’s also far from certain that the parliamentary party could unify behind anyone. Unless Johnson’s support among MPs totally collapses, he could be a highly disruptive force if he decided to nurse a sense of grievance, and his successor could find it impossible to govern.

With any luck, Johnson will realize that it’s time to go, the Tories will elect a new leader, and everyone can start moving on from the chaos of the last few years. But if he can’t be swayed, MPs may have to take matters into their own hands.

[1] Johnson faced a vote of no confidence within the Conservative Party last month. Because he won, he can’t face another challenge until next year. However, this is an internal party matter, and the rules can be changed at any time.

[2] The most recent Prime Ministers to lose the confidence of the House are James Callaghan (1979), Ramsay Macdonald (October 1924), and Stanley Baldwin (January 1924). All three men led governments without secure majorities.

[3] Anne Twomey, The Veiled Sceptre: Reserve Powers of Heads of State in Westminster Systems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 385.

[4] The Tories have already put her in that position twice. Prior to 1965, they had no mechanism to elect a leader, and so the Queen had to choose a Prime Minister following the resignations of Anthony Eden (1957) and Harold Macmillan (1963). While she was guided by figures in the party on both occasions, her actions were the subject of some controversy.

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