The most important line Boris Johnson uttered in his quasi-resignation speech outside No 10 this afternoon was this: “I have today appointed a cabinet to serve, as I will, until a new leader is in place.”
Johnson is seeking to stay on through the summer – indefinitely, even, as the timetable for the election of a new leader has not been confirmed. He has not tendered his resignation as Prime Minister.
He did concede that “it is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore a new prime minister”, and he agreed that “the process of choosing that new leader should begin now”. Although that choice has been taken out of his hands by the party itself: he will soon be removed as Tory party leader, whether he wants to be or not.
But he can, technically, be deposed as Tory leader and remain in office. He will not be removed from No 10 until he tenders his resignation as Prime Minister, or until he loses a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons (the last PM to lose such a vote was Labour’s Jim Callaghan in March 1979). Johnson will not, like Donald Trump, attempt to stay in power once the Tory party does select a new leader, but he has notably chosen not to tender his resignation as Prime Minister until it does.
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It is not clear if that position can hold, but by not resigning he is forcing his party’s MPs to remove him in the Commons if they object.
Johnson’s statement was otherwise notable for its complete lack of contrition. Instead it was laced with self-praise. He talked of winning “the biggest Conservative majority since 1987”, and of winning the biggest Tory share of the vote since 1979.
“The reason I have fought so hard in the last few days to continue [and] to deliver that mandate in person,” he said, “is not just because I have wanted to do so, but because I felt it was my job, my duty, my obligation to you – to continue to do what we promised in 2019.”
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That is some line. Johnson’s conduct in recent days has appalled many in his party (and the country). One senior MP described his refusal to resign yesterday as a “constitutional coup” to me last night. Many felt he has a duty to the constitution to go, but Johnson continues to talk almost mythically of his “duty” to deliver on the mandate he thinks he won in 2019. In reality, he received no such mandate: Britain’s system is prime ministerial not presidential, a fact he knows but frequently fails to recognise rhetorically.
He emphasised his own achievements – from getting Brexit done to “settling our relations with the continent for over half a century” (which may be news to many in Europe), as well as “getting us all through the pandemic” (a dubious achievement, given the UK’s death rate during Covid), and finally for leading the West in standing up to Vladimir Putin’s aggression.
“And let me say now to the people of Ukraine,” Johnson said at one point, but never did he address the people of the UK and express any remorse for his conduct in recent months. He described the reporting into partygate and Christopher Pincher that exposed his deceits as “quite a few months of pretty relentless sledging”.
Brilliance is “evenly distributed, but opportunity is not”, he said, affirming his commitment to levelling up after three years of failing to do so.
“I’ve tried to persuade my colleagues that it would be eccentric to change governments when we’re delivering so much, and have such a vast mandate, and are actually only a handful of points behind in the polls, even in midterm,” he went on, but unfortunately Johnson’s colleagues (the fools) would not let him continue.
He did express one regret – but for their actions, not his own: “I regret not to have been successful, and of course it’s painful not to be able to see through so many ideas and projects.” He concluded by offering a final implicit criticism of the movement to topple him: “As we’ve seen in Westminster the herd instinct is powerful, and when the herd moves, it moves.”
“Even if things seem dark now,” he said in his final line – confusing his own personal fate with the country’s wish to see him removed from office – “our future together is golden.”