“Surely, he’s got to go.” – the buzz phrase repeated across the country from coffee shops to classrooms as we come to terms with the stream of accusations against No. 10 breaking lockdown laws. Now, after the news of an alleged birthday party thrown for Boris Johnson during June 2020 has broken alongside the accusation that ex-minister Nusrat Ghani was fired following concerns over her ‘Muslimness’, the anger grows. But who really gets to decide when a Prime Minister’s time is up: the public who opened the door to No. 10 for Boris Johnson, or the MPs?
There are a couple of ways a Prime Minister can be removed by MPs. The first is through an internal vote of no confidence within the party. To trigger this vote within the Conservative Party, 15% of Party members have to write to the 1922 Committee of backbenchers – who then call a vote of no confidence if this amount of letters is reached. If Johnson lost this, a leadership election would be held, and the winner would become the PM. We can’t know for sure how many MPs have written to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee – Sir Graham Brady – as this is kept private, but it’s been speculated that the threshold will be reached imminently.
Alternatively, the challenge to Johnson’s leadership could come from elsewhere in the House of Commons. The Liberal Democrats tabled a motion of no confidence on 13 January 2022. This is where MPs in the Commons vote on whether they have confidence in the government’s leadership. If the Conservatives were to fail this vote, they would get two weeks to either win back the Commons’ confidence in a second vote or succumb to opposition parties forming their own government. If neither of these things happens – a general election is called.
On the face of things, then, the public doesn’t have a say in the security of the Prime Minister’s position at all. Though it’s important to remember that those conversations in the nation’s coffee houses and classrooms create an echo chamber for MPs who also doubt the leader’s competence, and are an excellent indicator of the public mood. While constituents could get into contact with their MPs to press them to write to Sir Graham Brady, much more influential is the noise the public make on social media and the conversations they have with one another. It reassures Conservative MPs, especially the fresh meat newly voted into the Commons in 2019, or those who occupy the seats of trepidatious ex-Labour strongholds who are concerned about challenging their leader that they will be supported by their colleagues and the public they are hired to represent. This process doesn’t require protesters in the streets, though very often includes it, but can manifest in Twitter trends, inflammatory jokes made on TV by Ant and Dec – safe in the knowledge that they will go down well, clearly reflecting the opinions of their viewers, and a general feeling that ‘time’s up’ created by this public opinion. In order to remain a representative of the people, MPs cannot ignore the obvious outrage bubbling through Britain.
At the time of writing on 26 January 2022, the long-anticipated inquiry conducted by Sue Gray into No. 10’s rulebreaking is expected imminently. Many suspect it will prove to be the nail in the coffin for Johnson’s leadership, which already seems fated to crumble mired in the level of corruption that can only come from a leader unable and unwilling to follow his own laws.