How was Johnson forced to resign and what happens next?

It took dozens of Conservative politicians to resign to force the PM’s hand, but what’s next for his party or the country?

Johnson delivers a speech during the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham [File: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA]

Britain’s leader Boris Johnson has been forced by his own team to resign as head of his Conservative Party, but he will remain prime minister until a successor is elected.

Analysts say that Johnson’s modus operandi never changed despite the recent upheavals that saw more than 50 ministers and aides resign before he gave in to the pressure to step aside following a string of scandals.

“Johnson’s time in office is ending as it started, with chaos and breaking conventions. From the illegal prorogation of parliament to the pandemic, it has been a tumultuous three years in UK politics,” Alexandra Meakin, lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds, told Al Jazeera.

“Johnson achieved his primary policy goal: removing the UK from the European Union and ending years of parliamentary stalemate. But families bereaved during the pandemic will struggle to see his tenure as a success overall,” she said.

“Furthermore, his treatment of UK conventions and institutions may have caused long-term damage to our unwritten constitution and lost the trust of the British people in their governing system,” said Meakin.

In the past few days, Johnson had come under immense scrutiny, with a string of resignations since Tuesday, including that of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid, two of the most pivotal members of Johnson’s cabinet.

Both called upon the prime minister to step down over his handling of the case of a senior official accused of sexual misconduct.

The events that transpired are unprecedented in the recent history of British politics, Stephen Elstub, reader in British politics at Newcastle University, told Al Jazeera.

“The closest precedent was the MacDonald Labour government in 1931, where the cabinet resigned during an extreme economic crisis. The most recent crisis that merits some comparison was Thatcher in 1990. However, only a few members of her cabinet reigned,” he said.

“What makes it similar to Johnson is that many cabinet members met with her and advised her to resign, saying she had lost control of the party. Advice that she ultimately took.

“In contrast, it has taken swaths of resignations to prompt Johnson to resign in the realisation that he is now unable to govern,” said Elstub.

sajid javid and rishi sunak
Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak [Reuters]

Indeed Johnson faced difficulties in even filling cabinet roles prior to his resignation. Moreover, Johnson would likely have encountered a new vote of confidence if he had not stepped down and given the latest developments, it would have been inconceivable for him to survive.

“Johnson survived one in June, and the Conservative Party’s rules currently prohibit a second vote within 12 months. But there are elections next week to the 1922 Committee, the body that looks after Conservative MPs’ interests and that sets the rules,” Nicholas Allen, professor of politics at Royal Holloway, University of London, told Al Jazeera.

Given the wave of opposition Johnson faced, a rule change would have been highly likely and, with it, a loss during the vote.

“The threat of changing the rules is usually sufficient to force a leader’s hand, as it did with Theresa May back in 2019,” Allen noted.

Chris Pincher

The most recent government crisis in Westminster was triggered by an affair involving Johnson’s party colleague Chris Pincher, the deputy chief whip.

Johnson had nominated Pincher, who faces multiple counts of sexual harassment allegations, for the role.

Johnson initially denied knowing about the allegations until it became apparent that he had lied.

“The handling of the allegations of sexual assault against Pincher was the final straw for many MPs. In addition to Johnson’s immense failure of judgement in promoting a man who had previously had a complaint of sexual harassment upheld against him, the incident demonstrated Johnson’s loose relationship with the truth and his willingness to send MPs out to lie on his behalf,” Meakin said.

However, the Pincher case was merely the latest in several scandals Johnson either played some role or was the main culprit. Most recently, he was criticised for illegal parties at his Downing Street office during the coronavirus lockdown.

Nevertheless, Johnson had supporters in the government until the very end who lauded him for his COVID-19 vaccine campaign, Brexit and his support of Ukraine.

But other reasons played a role in how long he survived.

No clear replacement

“There isn’t a clear and obvious replacement for Johnson, which makes removing him a big step into the unknown. The fear is that the new leader could be worse, and certainly with the electorate,” Elstub said.

“Moreover, Johnson has appointed people to government loyal to him rather than talented. They are well aware that they would have no chance of being in the cabinet under a different leader.”

Furthermore, while his transgressions were accepted for as long as the party was able to win elections – and Johnson did land the biggest election victory for the Conservatives since Margaret Thatcher only three years ago – the last by-election results showed that Johnson’s lack of decorum had started to affect the party’s success and thus he was no longer untouchable.

“The Tories are now polling the low 30s, their core vote. The longer Johnson had stayed in office, the greater the damage to the party’s electoral prospects. Dishonesty, division and incompetence are a toxic combination,” Allen noted.

With Johnson’s departure imminent, the opposition now demands new elections and is threatening a vote of no confidence in parliament if Johnson does not immediately resign from his position as PM.

‘Fresh start’

Labour leader Keir Starmer welcomed Johnson’s resignation. However, he demanded that a “fresh start” was now necessary. “We need a Labour government,” Starmer said. “We are ready.”

However, the opposition’s vote of no confidence is likely of very little meaning.

“Opposition parties may try to table a parliamentary vote of no confidence, but they would be defeated on the basis that Tory MPs are not going to bring down their government. This kind of vote is largely irrelevant in the present circumstances,” Allen noted.

British Labour Party opposition leader Keir Starmer gestures during Prime Minister's Questions at the House of Commons in London, Britain
Starmer gestures during Prime Minister’s Questions at the House of Commons [File: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/handout via Reuters]

Also, another election would be politically unwise for the Conservatives, who gained 80 seats during the previous vote. Given the current polls, the party could even lose its majority or could even lose its government role to Labour.

However, the party will also need to rectify its internal issues to be successful moving forward, Elstub said.

“The Conservative Party is currently in chaos. They have been propping up Johnson for months and repeating his lies and bluster to the media. As a result, the public has lost a lot of trust in the individuals involved, the party, politicians and political institutions in general.”

“However, Labour has not done enough to convince many voters that they should be in government. This leaves the next election result very much in doubt, and much will depend on the leadership of Starmer and the new Tory leader in the coming months.”

“Long-term, however, the Conservative Party will find a way to move beyond this. They are already starting to distance themselves from Johnson and will continue to do so. In time, politics will return to discussions about policy, and the Conservatives will ensure they are part of that conversation.”

Possible successors

Who will lead the party after the summer is anyone’s guess. However, some names are featuring more prominently in the Westminster bubble than others.

“This is very difficult to predict, and there isn’t a clear and obvious frontrunner, but contenders include Sunak, Javid, [newly-appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer Nadhim] Zahawi, [a Brexit-backing attorney general Suella] Braverman, [ex-defence secretary Penny] Mordaunt, [the chair of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Tom] Tugendhat, and [ex-foreign secretary Jeremy] Hunt. Only the latter two can genuinely claim to have been opposed to Johnson all along, and they could benefit from that,” Elstub noted.

“I think it’s likely to be one of three: [defence secretary Ben] Wallace, Javid, and [foreign secretary] Liz Truss. At the risk of sitting on the fence, the only thing I’d predict is an unpredictable leadership contest!” Allen noted.

“Sajid Javid will have boosted his chances with his resignation statement yesterday, while Liz Truss may be able to attract the votes of a large number of Conservative Party members across the UK,” Meakin said.

Most of these possible candidates will now put their names forward and participate in an internal election, with party members ultimately deciding on the next party leader and thus Britain’s next prime minister.

Source: Al Jazeera