What happens if Johnson resigns? What if he doesn’t?

by Hugo Dixon | 24.09.2019

The Prime Minister should certainly quit after the Supreme Court unanimously found he illegally tried to suspend Parliament. But will he?

If Boris Johnson has any honour, he will fall on his sword. Trying to shut down Parliament at a critical moment in our nation’s history isn’t just a minor, accidental breach of the law. It was a deliberate attempt to undermine our democracy. Sign this petition calling on him to quit.

Resignation may even be in his narrow self-interest. After all, he has said he would prefer to be “dead in a ditch” than ask the EU to delay Brexit beyond the end of October, as required under a law passed by Parliament earlier this month. If he is no longer Prime Minister, somebody else will have to make the request.

Based on what Johnson said yesterday, it doesn’t look like he’ll do the honourable thing. He said he wouldn’t resign. He even sought to make light of what should be a deadly serious matter, saying: “Donnez-moi un break is my message to those who say there will be no parliamentary scrutiny.” He doubled down on this in his first comments today – saying he was determined to quit the EU on October 31 come what may.

The Supreme Court didn’t just rule that Johnson’s attempted “prorogation” was unlawful. It also ruled that the suspension of Parliament had therefore not actually occurred. (Read its judgment here and the summary here.)

Parliament will sit again tomorrow from11.30am. Below we consider the various ways things could play out.

What if Johnson quits?

The first thing to note is that resignation is not the same as a vote of no confidence by MPs. As such, a process that could lead to a general election doesn’t automatically start ticking. 

Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, if a Prime Minister loses a vote of no confidence, there are 14 days to see if they or their replacement can win a vote of confidence. Failing that, there has to be an election. Johnson’s resignation wouldn’t trigger that process.

A key question would be whether Johnson resigns as an individual or resigns on behalf of the whole government. This may affect who takes over.

Who would take over?

If Johnson resigns as an individual, the Queen may choose another Tory to take over. That’s what happened when both David Cameron and Theresa May quit. This situation might be different, however, in that Cameron and May also resigned as leader of the Conservative Party – and it was obvious that the new leader should also be the new Prime Minister.

If Johnson stayed as leader of the Conservative Party – or if he quit that role too but stood down as Prime Minister with immediate effect – it would be necessary to find a caretaker Prime Minister. It’s not clear who that would be. 

A key question would be whether the replacement (say a Tory Brexiter such as Michael Gove) was willing to follow the new law requiring them to ask the EU to delay Brexit. If not, there would be further pitched battles in Parliament.

On the other hand, if the Prime Minister resigned on behalf of the government, the Queen would probably ask Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the opposition to take over. He has already said he is happy to ask the EU for extra time. So there would be no problem there.

If Johnson passes the baton to Labour, he might immediately seek to unseat Corbyn by launching a vote of no confidence in him. But that wouldn’t stop the Labour leader delaying Brexit. 

After all, even if such a vote of no confidence succeeded, it would merely trigger the 14-day period under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. There would then be a hunt to see if somebody else – perhaps Ken Clarke, the “Father of the House” whom Johnson expelled from the Conservative Party this month – could win a vote of confidence. If not, there would be an election. And Corbyn would stay in Downing Street at least until after that.

What if Johnson digs in?

The Prime Minister might shamelessly continue squatting in Downing Street. What would the opposition then do? 

One option would be to launch a vote of no confidence to remove him. That would not, though, be sensible – as it would trigger the 14-day process. 

What’s more, Johnson might still refuse to budge. Even if MPs were prepared to back another Prime Minister in a vote of confidence, they would not have a chance to show it under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. There would then be an election – with Johnson still sitting in Downing Street for the duration of the campaign. If he also refused to ask the EU for extra time, we would have crashed out by the time the election was held.

There may be ways of avoiding this scenario. For example, the Queen could fire Johnson if he refused to quit. (She has the power to do – see section 2.9 of the Cabinet Manual). Or the Courts might instruct somebody else to ask the EU for extra time on the Prime Minister’s behalf.

But why risk going down this route unless it is absolutely necessary?

The opposition might be better advised to take control of the Parliamentary timetable and pass new laws to restrain Johnson’s freedom of manoeuvre. They could, for example, change the Fixed Term Parliaments Act to say that a Prime Minister has to resign after losing a vote of confidence if MPs vote in favour of a rival – even before that alternative has become Prime Minister – and only launch a vote of no confidence after the law had been changed. It might also be a good idea to pass a law saying somebody else should ask the EU for extra time if the Prime Minister refuses to. The Speaker has made clear he will facilitate such a process.

The opposition could also pass a motion saying Johnson was in “contempt of Parliament”. That might put pressure on him to resign.

Is an election a good idea anyway?

If Johnson goes – either because he quits or because the Queen fires him or because Parliament removes him – the assumption is that there would then be an election. But that would not be the best outcome. It would be best first to hold a referendum on Brexit.

If there’s an election first, the issue of what should happen on Brexit would be muddled up with the question of who should run the country. If there’s a referendum first, the two issues could be decided separately.

So it would be best if Parliament passed legislation calling for a People’s Vote. It would probably take six months to hold such a referendum. In the meantime, somebody would have to run the country. The opposition needs to start working hard on how to put together such a government.

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The piece was updated to include a passage on Johnson’s first reaction to the Supreme Court judgment and a paragraph on the possibility of a motion of “contempt of Parliament” and

Edited by James Earley

Categories: Brexit, UK Politics

14 Responses to “What happens if Johnson resigns? What if he doesn’t?”

  • Johnson has absolutely no respect for the law, parliament or the people. He is proven to be dishonest, irresponsible and reckless. I suspect he will once again break the law.

  • Good old UK! It took its time but pride in the democratic institutions, good sense and decency found their way back in again. Whoever supported Johnson and his infantile, ridiculous, wide boy ways probably would do well to withdraw that support and become a well mannered Englishman again, the sort is on the Continent used to take to our hearts. Thank you very, very much, you dear eleven judges!

  • Just saw Johnson commenting that on the 31st of October the UK is leaving the EU. Really, what else can someone in his position say? The very image of a dead duck, singing I’m still standing.

  • He has no honour. Full of hubris and entitlement. Thus, I would be amazed if he resigned. Labour are in a mess and Johnson may have some rude to exploit their divisions. I would not trust Johnson an inch so anything can happen. He may well use blame the Supreme Court for his likely failure to get a deal and then just let the country crash out. He is cocky enough to take whatever risks are needed and think he can piece it all together again on 1st November.
    I hope we can win a vote of confidence, form a Government of National Unity and then have a second referendum. But the remainders have to work together and bury self interest and then we need to win a second referendum. People cleverer than I need to lead us out of the quagmire. Let’s hope someone can deliver the goods.

  • What a complete shambles!

    A prime minister that has been cornered by parliament that won’t accept a general election to replace him. Calls for a 2nd referendum before the first has been honoured after 3 years and the remain dominated parliament want as a choice between leaving with a non deal (BRINO) or remaining – even though remain has already lost!!! It will have to be either a no deal exit on the 31st of October or a general election very soon after. I can see no other viable alternative that would satisfy the leave majority in this country.

  • Good news, but to even think he could hoodwink the top legal brains in the country that the shut down was for any other reason than Brexit, was an insult to our intelligence.

    Looking beyond Brexit, it is a victory for parliamentary democracy. It demonstrated that the Prime Minister and Government are also subject to the law of the country. Just think what example it would have set for the rule of law up and down the land, if Johnson had been allowed to ride roughshod over it. Or indeed the precedent set for another Prime Minister, one maybe not so much to the liking of Mr Johnson. Some Brexit supporters may well claim that Parliament has too many Remainers. Yes, that’s parliamentary democracy.

  • Alex,

    You say parliamentary democracy but what about the majority of MPs who stood on a manifesto to respect the referendum and deliver Brexit and then once elected turned turtle! They are if anything more dishonest than Boris Johnson and need to stand on a manifesto at the next general election that they actually believe in. Then we will see if a new parliament is dominated by remainers.

  • How does ‘Peter’ know that there is still a Leave majority in this country after 3 years? Surely, a 2nd (confirmatory) referendum would reveal the current view.
    The first referendum has been honoured (respected) by 3 years of debate in Parliament. The result has not been ignored, just proved to be undeliverable.
    The viable alternative (a No Deal or No Brexit referendum) is there to be had!

  • David, are you kidding????

    3 years of debate is not honouring the referendum result, it has all been about trying to stop us leaving!
    I would be perfectly happy with another referendum assuming the question is between leaving with an agreed deal or leaving on WTO terms. Remain has already lost and cannot be an option for a 2nd referendum.

  • @ Peter
    MPs use their own judgement as representatives of those who elected them, not as carrying out any specific instruction. Otherwise you might as well elect robots to do the job. As a voter, you should be able to differentiate between Dominic Grieve and Ian Duncan Smith, even if in the same party.
    In the case of Labour, most voters were Remainers. No way did people like Alistair Campbell vote for Brexit, but we have a first past the post electoral system.

  • Correct Alex. MPs are representatives not delegates as I have been informed by an MP when I complained about his hard line Brexit stance.

  • To those trying to reason with Peter,
    This is a pointless exercise. He cannot think beyond the Leave won, Remain lost argument. No facts are ever good enough for this ‘Proud Brit’. Nothing wrong with being one per. se but to say that is all that counts in planning country’s life outside the EU is burying one’s head in the sand. He never replies to a serious challenge and will soak up your energy. Engage with people who will listen and can make a difference.

  • Just looking at the Attorney General answering questions in Parliament, it underlines
    that they will try and wriggle out of any law before them. They continue to be evasive hiding behind entitlement to not disclose legal (or lack of) advice when it suits. The same will happen when it comes to the Benn act preventing us leaving without a Deal on 31 October. Therefore, MPs must resist all temptation to call an early general election, unless it is legally nailed on that we will not leave on 31 Oct with No deal. Johnson , Gove and Rees-Mogg cannot be trusted on anything.