At 9 pm on August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon went on television to announce: “I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.”
It was a dramatic event for the American people at the time and there is a growing expectation the British public may be about to hear a similar declaration from their Prime Minister.
Boris Johnson’s time in office has been notable for controversial actions on his part, the latest being the appointment of Conservative Member of Parliament Chris Pincher as Deputy Chief Whip, ensuring the party’s MPs attend and vote at Westminster. Pincher has been the subject of highly-publicized allegations of inappropriate behavior.
At the time of writing on July 6, it is reported that a group of ministers in the British government are waiting at Number Ten Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s fabled residence in London, to urge him to resign. This comes after two very senior ministers, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, have already quit from their prestigious jobs.
Michael Gove, who currently holds the title of Levelling Up Secretary (which involves closing the gap between rich and poor parts of the country in terms of education, broadband, and transport), Home Secretary Priti Patel, and Kwasi Karteng, Business Secretary, have also been calling for Johnson to resign.
In his resignation letter, Sunak said “the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously” and he added: “I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning.”
The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously.
I recognise this may be my last ministerial job, but I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning.
My letter to the Prime Minister below. pic.twitter.com/vZ1APB1ik1
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) July 5, 2022
For his part, Sajid Javid said the British people “expect integrity from their government” and he added that voters now believed Johnson’s administration was neither competent, nor “acting in the national interest”.
I have spoken to the Prime Minister to tender my resignation as Secretary of State for Health & Social Care.
It has been an enormous privilege to serve in this role, but I regret that I can no longer continue in good conscience. pic.twitter.com/d5RBFGPqXp
— Sajid Javid (@sajidjavid) July 5, 2022
We are told at the time of writing that Chief Whip Chris Heaton-Harris and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps are among the group waiting at No. 10 to give Johnson a message along the lines of William Shakespeare’s famous line in his play Macbeth: “Stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once.”
However, it appears at the present moment that Johnson intends to cling to office if he can. He has told the House of Commons Liaison Committee that, given the state of the economy and the continuing war in Ukraine, it would not be right to “walk away”. He has also ruled out calling a snap general election, insisting that he couldn’t see one taking place until 2024 at the earliest.
In a rapidly-changing situation, it is reported that the group at Downing Street who want Johnson to go have been joined by another group who want him to stay.
The Prime Minister won a vote of confidence in the Conservative Party last month by 211 votes to 148 and, under current rules, he should not have to face another vote of that kind for a year. The 1922 Committee of backbench Members of Parliament has the power to change that rule: new elections to the Committee’s executive are due to be held shortly and there has been speculation that MPs might be allowed to vote again on Johnson’s leadership in the immediate future.
If Boris Johnson is ousted from his job, who might be his successor? One of the names frequently mentioned is that of Liz Truss, Foreign Secretary, who is a popular figure among Conservative Party members. She is also perceived as ambitious and keen to rise to the top. First elected to the House of Commons 12 years ago, she was soon promoted to ministerial office and has served at that level under three Prime Ministers: David Cameron, Theresa May, and now Boris Johnson. She was opposed to Britain’s departure from the European Union (EU) in the 2016 referendum on the issue but after the Brexit (British Exit) side won, she changed her tune.
In recent times, she has been promoting legislation to modify the so-called “Irish Sea Border” whereby imports from Britain to the north of Ireland are subject to the Northern Ireland Protocol, previously agreed between Boris Johnson and the EU, whereby customs checks and trade controls are applied to imports from Britain to the north of Ireland in order to ensure that items which are subsequently transferred across the Irish land border into the European Union comply with EU standards. The intention has been to avoid the re-establishment of a “hard border” involving customs checks between the two parts of the island of Ireland, which could have security implications. But the Protocol is very unpopular with unionists, who believe it is weakening the link between the north of Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. As a consequence, the Democratic Unionist Party is refusing to participate in the recently-elected Northern Ireland Assembly, which is effectively suspended as a result.
Another contender for Johnson’s job could be the aforementioned Rishi Sunak although his image suffered last April when he was fined, along with Boris himself, for breaching the lockdown rules brought in as a result of the Covid pandemic. However, his recent resignation should help to restore his popularity.
Others among a wide range of possible contenders include former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who ran against Johnson in the 2019 leadership contest, and the recently-resigned Health Secretary Sajid Javid.
Interesting times lie ahead.
*Deaglán de Bréadún is an Irish journalist and author.