“Terrific” said Boris Johnson when asked by the Liaison Committee how his week was going. “Like many others”. If there was a sardonic touch to that response, there was also the Johnson doggedness which has kept him in office through waves of scandals and now cascades of resignations – 36 from ministerial and other posts in the last 24 hours.
As his ministers have said in resignation letters whose eloquence speaks of the sense of liberation – and sadness – their authors feel, the prime minister should now resign. It is impossible to see, given the flood of ministers through the exit door, from his chancellor and health secretary to key ministers on levelling up and education – key parts of his agenda – that he could claim to be able to run a functioning government any more let alone one capable of dealing properly with the problems and tough choices facing the country.
What is more, it is implausible that the Johnson government can retrieve a reputation for standards and ethics shattered by repeated scandals and apparent lies, unforced errors and corrections, which ministers and officials were asked to relay and defend, to their humiliation. As many said in resigning, they felt they could preserve their own integrity only by distancing themselves from Boris Johnson. That is a savage indictment.
If Johnson does respond to the calls for him to go, then the government still needs a prime minister. In theory, it could in the short term still be Johnson. He could do what Theresa May did and use those last months to extract at least something of the legacy he wants. Very likely, he would find that prospect too humiliating, and would choose to go abruptly. If so, there needs to be another caretaker while the party leadership election process takes place.
The obvious candidate is the deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab. He has after all performed a similar role when Johnson was in intensive care with Covid. But the caretaker should not be a candidate for the leadership; that would add an air of unfairness, allowing the benefits of incumbency to affect the leadership election. Raab does not appear to be a likely successful candidate, judging by polls. But politicians have been known to take a more optimistic view of their own prospects than polls suggest when the leadership becomes vacant. If Raab does run, the Cabinet will need to find a different caretaker.
There has been speculation that Johnson might choose to dissolve Parliament and press for a general election – even if his parliamentary party did not support one, and it is hard to see how Conservative MPs would, given the huge likelihood that they would lose. Labour has said it would welcome that move. That talk has been fuelled by remarks from Johnson that it has indeed crossed his mind. His possible justification seems to be that he has a democratic mandate from the huge majority he won in December 2019.
That would be a profoundly misguided and constitutionally damaging move. Johnson is wrong to interpret the 2019 vote as a vote for him – as if he were a directly elected president. The UK’s parliamentary system invites votes to cast their ballots for a party, and the person the party chooses is then the leader.
If Johnson tried that manoeuvre, going to the Queen to ask her permission for dissolution, it would confront the monarch with that constitutional contradiction. In those highly undesirable circumstances, she should have no hesitation in refusing him that permission.
Whoever succeeds Johnson – whenever that is – needs immediately to bring about a thorough reset of the government’s approach to integrity and standards. That should include a fundamental change to the office of the independent ethics adviser, an essential role (now vacant) which needs as we have argued to be truly independent. It needs a resetting of the currently sour and tense relationship with civil servants which needs both more accountability and more respect. It also needs a change to the way that No.10 operates, with those representing the prime minister able to uphold rules on propriety and to speak truthfully and reliably in public. Only then can a government focus on the issues that really matter – most important, the economy. Distancing the new administration from the failings of Johnson’s would be popular as well as being the right thing to do.
It will take some distance from the never-ending drama of the Johnson premiership to judge whether it did indeed mark a deterioration of standards in public life, or simply showed the mayhem that one individual at the top with no apparent interest in observance of rules can bring to the political life of the country. There are no rules proof against that. But the one great lesson of the Johnson era is that the existing rules rely heavily on convention and are open to manipulation. In its own interests and the interests of the UK, the next government should move immediately to repair the damage done and clarify the principles by which any government must abide.