Today Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, announced his resignation. The resignation of any prime minister is significant, but this one is remarkable.
Johnson has not lost any vote. In December 2019, he led the Conservative Party to an emphatic victory at the general election. His government has a substantial majority in the House of Commons. A few weeks ago he decisively won a vote of confidence of his party’s members of parliament.
And yet he is going against his will. From having the greatest gifts that the British constitution can bestow on a prime minister – a large majority to get legislation through the House of Commons and an election mandate to force things through the House of Lords – he is now a political loser.
He had everything a prime minister could want and it is now to be taken from him.
Political journalists and historians will for some time discuss how this fall came about. But from a constitutionalist perspective, this resignation shows both the strengths and weaknesses of the office of prime minister.
On the face of it, the office has immense power. In theory, the prime minister and their party are subject only to the discipline of general elections. But since 1974 every single prime minister has either gained office or lost office between general elections – or, with the cases of Theresa May and Boris Johnson, both.
This is because a prime minister depends on the confidence of both the cabinet and their parliamentary majority. When that confidence goes, they tend to go – usually with dignity, or – as with Johnson – arrogant defiance. These losses of confidence are, in turn, shown through things other than straight votes. They can be shown by calls for leadership elections and they can be shown by resignations and refusals to serve as ministers.
A prime minister could seek to ignore such signals. If so, they would eventually face formal parliamentary votes of no confidence or dismissal by Queen Elizabeth. There were fears that Johnson would “fight on” after the extraordinary spate of resignations and letters of no confidence over the last few days. But he has not.
A feature of a working constitution is that repugnant things can be spat out by the body politic. The casual dishonesty and cynicism of the current prime minister meant that he has been ejected, only two-and-a-half years after his great general election victory. He may stay on for a while, so that the governing party can select a successor.
For him – and the United Kingdom polity – to have gone from the general election of 2019 to today’s resignation – has been quite the journey. We have now had three prime ministers in six years, and our politics is still in its post-Brexit unstable state. The next prime minister may go on for ages, or may be the next short-lived prime minister.
Whatever happens next, the truth remains that for all its public prominence, the office of prime minister is quite weak, once its holder loses the confidence of others in the polity. Johnson’s mistake was to think such constitutional restraint would not apply to him. But such hubris was always going to meet its nemesis.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.