Reckoning for Britain as Boris Johnson presses on with 'dormant leadership'

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Britain is staring down the barrel of uncertainty as the Conservative party begins the laborious process of finding a new leader to replace Boris Johnson. He's staying on in a caretaker role until a suitable new prime minister is found. However that could take months leaving the country, and the party, in an “embarrassing” situation.

Johnson announced on Thursday he would step down as head of the Conservative party following resignations by more than 50 government ministers.

Many of his MPs wanted him out of office in the wake of a series of scandals and a loss of integrity. But despite calls for his departure, Johnson made no mention of stepping down as Prime Minister.

In his resignation statement he said only that the "process of choosing that new leader should begin now and the timetable will be announced next week”.

Johnson plans to go only once a new leader is found.

In principle, this is not unusual, says Colin Hay, a professor of British civilisation at Paris’s Institute of Political Sciences.

“There’s certainly a precedent for it, pretty much the same thing happened with both Johnson’s predecessors Theresa May and David Cameron,” he told RFI.

“It’s controversial because of the circumstances under which he’s leaving, but there's no chance whatsoever that he would continue beyond the completion of a leadership contest.

"The problem is the length of time during which British government is essentially dormant under his leadership.”


The Conservative leadership contest is a lengthy process and might not be sorted out until October.

Sir John Major, a former Conservative prime minister, said it would be "unwise" for Johnson to stay in office for three months.

He, and some other Conservative MPs, said the timetable could be shortened with Johnson resigning immediately and Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab taking over as a caretaker premier.

Major also suggested the leadership election process – decided by the executive of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs – could be modified.

Pressure to resign soon

In the meantime, Johnson remains in the job, but pressure is mounting.

“Johnson has only gone half way, he's resigned as party leader but hasn’t resigned as PM,” Keith Dixon, a British civilisation specialist at Lyon University, told RFI.

“So I think that on the Conservative party side there will be strong movement to put pressure on Johnson to resign quickly.”

Braitain's main opposition Labour Party has called for Johnson to quit immediately, promising a vote of no confidence if he isn’t ousted straight away.

“He’s taking the mickey,” former Labour minister Denis MacShane told RFI.

“He’s been driven out of the Conservative party but insists he can remain head of government and the country: propose laws, name ministers, even declare war.

“If Macron, Biden, or whoever are talking to Johnson what powers will he have? That’s the problem.”

'Limited' powers

In theory Johnson holds onto the same powers until he’s replaced; he still represents the UK abroad, and can continue to make public appointments and change cabinet members.

But in reality his powers are “constrained” – both by himself and by the absence of any significant support even within his own party says Hay.

“Johnson said himself he won’t engage in new policy initiatives and he doesn’t really have the authority to introduce significant new public policy making, even if he chose to do so.”

Hay says questions remain, however, over ongoing policy initiatives, notably the Northern Ireland protocol.

What happens next?

After the drama of recent weeks, and Johnson's reluctant resignation as party leader, Hay believes the turmoil will gradually subside.

“We’re sort of on the eve of the summer recess, so things will now probably slow down a bit. Boris isn’t up for stoking the fires yet again," he says.

"I think and hope we might find a relatively more tranquil summer as candidates start to emerge for the leadership contest within the Conservative party and the focus of attention moves away from Boris.”

No one has officially thrown their hat in the ring, but close to a dozen names are circulating in the media.

Once a list is drawn up, Conservative MPs will whittle candidates down to a final two and then party members – just under 200,000 – will decide which one will be leader, and therefore the next prime minister.

While the new PM is not required to hold a general election straightaway, one must be held by January 2025.

Tarnished image abroad

Meanwhile, the fact Johnson is sitting tight as Prime Minister for the moment is "frankly embarrassing” in terms of Britain's international reputation says MacShane.

Hay agrees that it's "giving a terrible image".

It remains to be seen, he says, how much of the damage will be long term and how much is personally associated with Johnson and will therefore change once he's gone.

"I suspect there’s a bit of both [...] it’s not just been Boris Johnson acting alone that's led to the loss of Britain’s international reputation, above all in Europe," Hay says.

"In that sense I think Britain’s going to have to re-earn its reputation and that may take quite a time."

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