Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson coined the phrase “a week is a long time in politics”, which has certainly been confirmed by recent events. Until recently, it looked like Boris Johnson wasn’t likely to be ousted from No.10 anytime soon, largely because the Tories weren’t that far behind in the polls. But the leadership problem within the Conservative Party has now turned into something much more serious. It has become a constitutional crisis as well as a political crisis for the Prime Minister.
Johnson was forced to apologize to Parliament on January 12 as he could no longer deny clear evidence that his staff gathered in a large group in the garden at 10 Downing Street as the UK was strictly locked.
The constitutional crisis has two aspects. The first is the question of lying in parliament. The prime minister says the May rally was a “working event” and could therefore be considered “as directed” at the time. Many will have greeted this claim with great skepticism – especially anyone who has faced criminal charges for meeting other people outside during the time period in question. Back in the day, people were only allowed to mingle with one other outside their home when they met outside. Face-to-face working meetings were only permitted when “absolutely necessary”.
If Johnson lied to Parliament that the rules were followed when they were not, this is a breach of the ministerial code. In the past, this offense has not only resulted in the dismissal of ministers of the first instance, but even the expulsion of Members of Parliament.
The Profumo affair in 1963 is a striking illustration of this. When John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, lied to Parliament about his extramarital affair with Christine Keeler, he ended up having to leave Parliament. The scandal finally brought down the government.
The second constitutional question concerns the police investigation into the party in Downing Street during the May 2020 lockdown. Johnson admitted to witnessing this event during Prime Minister’s Questions on January 12. The rally took place as the rest of the country was tightly locked up. He claimed the party was a “business event,” but if the police investigation reveals that she broke the rules, it would mean Johnson and the other attendees were committing a criminal offense. Lying in parliament or breaking foreclosure rules are both resignation offenses.
However, the political fallout from the crisis is expected to be the most significant. The public reaction is apparent in a recent poll published in The Independent which showed two-thirds of voters believe Johnson should resign. Conservative backbenchers now know Johnson is no longer an election winner and will likely fear for the security of their seats. If the party wants to recover, it will have to face this fact.
How other PMs lost their jobs
It’s interesting to put Johnson’s crisis in context by looking at the reasons prime ministers have resigned in the past. Since the end of World War II, the UK has had 15 prime ministers. The most common reason they walked out was the loss of an election. It happened to Winston Churchill in 1945, Clement Attlee in 1951, Alec Douglas-Home in 1963, Edward Heath in 1974, Jim Callaghan in 1979, John Major in 1997 and Gordon Brown in 2010 – all of whom lost the general election. David Cameron can be added to the list since he lost the EU referendum in 2016, as well as Theresa May because she stepped down after losing the European Parliament elections in 2019.
The second most common reason for quitting was poor health. This explains why Churchill resigned from his second term in April 1955. It also explains why his successor Anthony Eden resigned in January 1957. He suffered a nervous breakdown following the Suez Crisis of 1956 when Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt after its president, Gamel Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal.
Another case is that of Harold Wilson, who surprised most observers by resigning in March 1976 at a time when no particular crisis was brewing. It later turned out that he was concerned about his memory loss and impending dementia, which eventually caught up with him. Thus, he counts as a Prime Minister who has resigned due to health problems.
The two remaining cases that do not fit into these categories are Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. The former was sacked by her own party in 1990 when Conservative electoral support collapsed after the introduction of a misguided voting tax. Blair resigned after constant pressure from his successor, Brown, but his departure came amid his growing unpopularity after the Iraq war. One wonders if he would have passed the baton had he not been faced with such a public reaction.
Approval of the Prime Minister’s file in the month he resigned (% of survey respondents)
An interesting question is the role of public opinion in all of these resignations. The graph above examines the approval ratings of the six prime ministers who did not resign immediately after an election defeat. This does not include those who lost an election as it is a clear signal that the electorate has rejected a leader.
The graph shows the approval ratings of those six prime ministers in the month they stepped down, as well as Johnson’s current approval rating. Obviously, Churchill was very popular when he resigned in April 1955, so it was a real case of illness leading to retirement. Eden, Macmillan, and Wilson all had respectable ratings, and Blair was less popular – although he still got a 35% approval rating.
The big stars are Thatcher and Johnson. However, there is an important difference between them. Both Thatcher and the Conservative Party were very unpopular at the time of his resignation, with the party ranking well behind Labor in terms of voting intentions. Currently, Johnson’s ratings are much worse than his party’s. According to a YouGov poll released just before Christmas, the Tories were just 6 percentage points behind Labor in voting intentions.
That is likely to change in the near future as the Prime Minister’s political problems drag his party into the polls. This means that there is a clear solution to the problem for Tory MPs – namely to impeach Johnson and hope for a revival in the polls by electing a new leader. The party did this successfully in 1990 when it sacked Thatcher, so many will think there is a good chance of repeating the exercise this time.