Over the past few months, United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been facing intense criticism over the allegations of numerous parties being held in Downing Street while the country was in lockdown or under restrictions that banned indoor socializing between households. Johnson has tried to dampen the impact of these scandals, either by insisting that they were a work event or that he only attended for less than 10 minutes. Later on, he apologized for attending a gathering in the Downing Street Garden during the first lockdown. However, the revelation of a party that was held the night before the funeral of Prince Philip, at which the Queen was forced to sit alone due to coronavirus restrictions, has sparked nationwide outrage and increased the pressure on Johnson to resign or even be dismissed.
Under which circumstances may Boris Johnson be dismissed?
1. Motion of no confidence in Parliament
A motion of no confidence is a method of testing whether the Prime Minister still has the support of the House of Commons, having therefore the power to trigger a general election, which could result in a new Prime Minister appointed.
Under the current rules, if a motion of no confidence is voted favourably by the majority of the members of the Parliament, the Government will then have 14 days to try to win back the confidence of the members who voted against the government, while, at the same time, the opposition parties may attempt to form their own government. After 14 days, if neither the present Government gathers enough support from the Parliament nor the opposition parties have been able to form an alternative Government, an early general election is automatically called.
It is important to note that losing a confidence vote does not necessarily mean that the current Prime Minister will be forced out since they could once again win the general elections. Nevertheless, the current voting intentions predicted by the polls show the Labour Party beating Johnson’s Conservative Party by a significant margin, meaning that the above-mentioned most likely would not apply in this case.
As of the time of writing this article, a motion of no confidence on the Government of Boris Johnson has already been tabled by the Liberal Party. However, it is unlikely to succeed due to the 80-seat majority that the Conservative Party currently has in the House of Commons. Despite being very unlikely for members of Johnson’s own party to vote favourably to this motion, since MPs tend to follow party lines on a vote that can topple the government, it is not unthinkable. In fact, it did happen in 1979, when Prime Minister James Callaghan lost a confidence vote and was later beat in the general election by Margaret Thatcher.
2. Conservative Party´s internal motion of no confidence
Boris Johnson may also be dismissed from the Prime Minister position in the case he loses a vote of no confidence on his leadership of the Conservative Party. For this vote to be triggered, 15% of the Conservative MPs (54 currently) must write a letter to the head of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady. Afterwards, every Conservative member of the Parliament (359) would vote on this motion, and, in the case of at least 180 favourable votes, Johnson would be forced to resign, and a new leader would be chosen by the party.
Although it is not known by the public how many letters have already been sent to Graham Brady, as of the time of writing this article, 9 Conservative MPs have publicly announced that they have sent a letter requesting a no-confidence vote, and another 6 have called for the Prime Minister’s resignation. Furthermore, a vote has not yet been called, thus we can conclude that the 54 letters threshold has not been met yet. However, it is believed that the number of those who have written letters but have not yet disclosed is close to the 54-requirement.
There is also a 3rd option, where Boris Johnson presents his resignation from his position as Prime Minister. However, Johnson has proven in the past to be resilient when facing calls to quit, and there are no signs from his statements regarding the scandal that he intends to resign.
Next in line for the Conservative Party’s leadership
In the case Boris Johnson is dismissed by either one of the above-mentioned circumstances, a leadership contest would be called. Any member of the Parliament, besides the ousted Prime Minister, can run for the party’s leadership, as long as they have the support of 8 other members of the Parliament. In the first stage of the contest, Conservative MPs will hold several rounds of votes, where the candidates with the lowest number of votes drop out until there are only two contenders left. In the second stage, all members of the party vote on the final two candidates.
According to a poll developed by YouGov, which surveyed 1005 Conservative Party members, the favorite potential candidates to be their next leader are Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss.
Rishi Sunak is seen as the rising star in the Conservative Party. He is 41 years old and is currently serving as Finance Minister. Sunak attended both Oxford and Sandford and worked in investment banking before turning into politics in 2015 when he was elected to Parliament. In case Sunak replaces Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, he would be the first person of color to hold the office. It is important to note that, despite being currently the favorite among party members to win an eventual leadership contest, Sunak is not as popular among the Conservative Party’s members that would vote on the first stage of the leadership contest – members of the Parliament.
Liz Truss is 46 years old and currently holds the position of Foreign Secretary. As a member of the Conservative Party, she has served under 3 Prime Ministers: David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson. Truss studied at Oxford University and worked in the energy and telecommunications industries before entering politics. She has been a member of Parliament since 2010. Although Truss is not the favourite contender among the wide Conservative Party membership, she is believed to be the favourite among the members of the Parliament – who vote on the first stage of the leadership contest. Tactical voting by her supporters in this stage could mean that her main opponent, Rishi Sunak, would not be able to gather enough support to reach the second stage, which seems to be the only way Trust could come out victorious in the end.
Consequences of a new Prime Minister
According to a poll conducted by YouGov, Boris Johnson has become increasingly unpopular among the English Public since around June of 2020, which has only gotten worse with this “Partygate” scandal. Therefore, a new Prime Minister could result in a narrowing of the lead in the polls of the Labour Party.
Due to the Conservative Party being currently behind in the polls, it is not likely that the new Prime Minister would call for an early election once they take office, as it could result in losing seats in the Parliament or even losing the premiership to the Labour Party.
As a result, an early election should not be expected, and consequently, UK electors should only be able to actively express their view with regards to this Government’s performance until May of 2024. It remains only to be seen whether the Conservative Party can use this time to win back English people’s confidence.
Sources: Politico, The Washington Post, CNN, The New York Times, YouGov.
Scientific revision: Patrícia Cruz
João Sande e Castro