The system is trying to eject Boris Johnson, but will he go?

Constitutionally, British prime ministers stand on a plank between two stools. For Boris Johnson, both those stools are tottering.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson adjusts his tie
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson adjusts his tie at the start of a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, London, May 24, 2022 [File: Daniel Leal/Pool via AP]

Resignations are a feature of the constitution of the United Kingdom, and not a bug. When a minister resigns, a noise is made that usually catches the attention of others, even if just for a moment. A red light flashes on the dashboard of the British state.

In the last day or so, there have been several resignations, including of the chancellor of the exchequer and other senior ministers. At other times, just one of these resignations would be newsworthy. But taken together, it shows a political meltdown.

A political crisis is not necessarily a constitutional crisis, and it is normal for politicians to come and go. Yet the current drama could test the limits of the British constitution, as we are faced with a prime minister whom the political system is seeking to eject from office but who is refusing to go.

The prime minister of the United Kingdom has surprisingly few formal powers. The role is not defined in law, and it is only mentioned in a few statutes.

The prominence of the position comes from the interplay of two constitutional sources. The first is the power of patronage which derives from the royal prerogative, and this enables a prime minister to hire and fire cabinet ministers and to set the agenda for the government. The second is what flows from having a majority in the House of Commons, which ensures control over law-making and raising finance.

But when a prime minister loses either the confidence of their cabinet or of their parliamentary majority, they are in political trouble. And current Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears to have lost the confidence of both. Constitutionally a prime minister stands on a plank between two stools, and now both those stools are tottering.

Usually, a prime minister in this predicament would resign. Johnson, however, is not one for resignation. The system works well when prime ministers resign when they should do so. What we are about to see is what happens when one refuses to do so. How will political pushing convert into constitutional shoving?

The constitution of the UK is used to prime ministers being got rid of between general elections. Since 1974, each prime minister has lost or taken power between general elections (and in one case both). A prime minister being forced from office between general elections is not new or unusual. A prime minister refusing to do so when the foundations of their political power are collapsing is not that common, and nobody can predict what will be the result.

The dashboard is now ablaze with red flashing lights. What is missing is the soothing green light of a change of prime minister. We just do not know when – or if – that will happen.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.