What Happens if Boris Johnson loses the confidence of his Cabinet, or his MPs?

Boris Johnson’s time in Downing Street appears to be in its final days, but how it will end remains unclear. Robert Hazell examines the possibilities. How long will a leadership election take? Could there be a caretaker Prime Minister? What happens if Johnson tries to call a snap general election?

If Boris Johnson loses a confidence vote among Conservative MPs, he is not able to stand again. Any other Conservative MP can then stand for the party leadership. How long it will take for the party to elect a new leader will depend on the number of candidates standing, and whether the vote goes to a second stage ballot of all party members.  Party rules prescribe that Conservative MPs vote initially in a series of ballots to select two candidates, who then go forward to a postal ballot of all party members for the final decision. In 2005 it took two months for David Cameron to be elected leader, defeating David Davis in the postal ballot. In 2019 it took six and a half weeks for Boris Johnson to be elected, defeating Jeremy Hunt. It therefore seems unlikely that we will know who is the new Conservative leader (and Prime Minister) until September. But when Cameron announced his resignation in June 2016, it took just 17 days for Theresa May to emerge as the new leader, because Andrea Leadsom stood down as the second candidate in the postal ballot.

Time is being finally called on Boris Johnson’s premiership.  The initial trickle of ministerial resignations has become a steady stream; a delegation of Cabinet ministers has reportedly called on him to resign; if he doesn’t take the hint, the 1922 Committee seems likely to hold an early second confidence vote in his leadership.   But what will happen if he does resign, or if he loses the confidence of a majority of Conservative MPs?  How long might it take for the Conservative party to elect a new leader, and how will the country be governed in the meantime?

In 2016 David Cameron remained in office as Prime Minister until Theresa May had been selected as the new leader, when he then tendered his resignation to the Queen.  Similarly in 2019 Theresa May remained in office until Boris Johnson had been selected as leader. The initial presumption must be that Boris Johnson will similarly remain as Prime Minister until a new leader has been chosen, whether that takes a couple of weeks or a couple of months.  If he chose to resign immediately as PM, an interim Prime Minister would need to be appointed.  That would most likely be the Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, so long as he is not standing as a candidate, which he did in 2019. It was Raab whom Johnson asked to lead the government when he went into intensive care in April 2020.  Whoever was chosen would need to have the support of the Cabinet: it could be asked to nominate the interim Prime Minister, or soundings could be taken, as happened with the appointment of Harold Macmillan in 1957, and Alec Douglas-Home in 1963. The person chosen would need to be appointed by the Queen, and formally would have all the powers of a more permanent PM, chairing meetings of the Cabinet, leading on all the government’s day-to-day business, and responding to emergencies such as the war in Ukraine.

Whether Johnson remains in office during the election of a new leader, or an interim PM is appointed, they are likely to be described as a caretaker Prime Minister.  But Boris Johnson or an interim PM would not lead a caretaker government, in the strict sense of the caretaker convention restricting what a government can do. That only applies when the government has lost the confidence of parliament; Johnson may have lost the confidence of his MPs, but the Conservative government would continue to enjoy a large parliamentary majority, and would be able to govern with the authority conferred by that majority.

The only circumstance in which the caretaker convention would apply would be if Johnson decided to seek a snap election, as he is now entitled to do under the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act, which came into force in March. The Chair of the Liaison Committee, Bernard Jenkin, pressed Boris Johnson to say he would not call an early election: readers must judge whether the PM gave a clear commitment to that effect (view the exchanges, at 16:55pm). The PM is now entitled to request a dissolution at a time of his choosing.  The Act restored the prerogative power of dissolution, but it is a reserve power of the monarch, which can be refused in certain circumstances.  Those circumstances were explained in 1950 by King George VI’s Private Secretary, Alan (‘Tommy’) Lascelles, in a letter to the Times under the pseudonym Senex. Earlier in the session William Wragg asked Johnson whether he understood the Lascelles Principles (at 16:27pm). The Lascelles Principles state that the Sovereign can refuse a request for dissolution if three conditions are met:

  1. if the existing Parliament was still ‘vital, viable, and capable of doing its job’;
  2. if a general election would be ‘detrimental to the national economy’; and
  3. if the Sovereign could ‘rely on finding another prime minister who could govern for a reasonable period with a working majority in the House of Commons’.

Wragg reminded the PM specifically of the third principle. Early dissolution can be justified if a parliament is deadlocked, as happened with the Brexit parliament of 2017-19; it is harder to justify as a solution to contested leadership in the governing party. If Johnson’s desperate last throw was to seek to appeal over the heads of his mutinous MPs to the country, the Queen might also find herself reminding him of the third of the Lascelles Principles. Lascelles went on to become the Queen’s first Private Secretary in the first year of her reign. As a long-reigning monarch with a famously long memory, she may need to bear them in mind should Johnson’s last throw be to request an early dissolution. Or she may simply remind him of his statements to the Liaison Committee: ‘The last thing this country needs, frankly, is an election… Of course I rule it out: the earliest date I see for an election is two years from now’ (at 16:56).

About the author

Robert Hazell is Professor of Government and the Constitution at UCL and a former Director of the Constitution Unit.

Image credit: Boris Johnson; Chatham House, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.