The United Kingdom’s unwritten constitution is being used to try and eject an unpopular prime minister.
The United Kingdom is one of the few countries without a codified (or “written”) constitution, and so with events like today’s vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Boris Johnson there is no clear guide as to what can and cannot happen next. A great deal depends on conventions and precedents and, in part, whether Johnson will respect those conventions and precedents.
Today’s vote is only for the elected members of parliament for the governing Conservative Party. As such, it is supposedly a party matter, as opposed to a constitutional matter. Conservative MPs are voting on whether they have confidence in him as their party leader – and not, technically, whether they have confidence in him as a prime minister.
And so if Johnson loses this vote, there is no automatic consequence for his premiership. He can remain as prime minister without being a party leader, and there are a few historical examples of British premiers in this situation.
But it would be unusual. This is because the prime minister in the United Kingdom is also supposed to have the support of a majority of elected representatives in the House of Commons. When a party has an overall majority – as is the current situation with the Conservatives – then the party leader is de facto in command of a Commons majority.
Normally, a prime minister who loses the confidence of their party would be expected to resign. These, however, are not normal times, and Johnson is not a normal politician. There have been many serious problems over which he has not resigned and it may well be that he would not resign as prime minister even if he lost the support of his own party. He would probably instead seek to hold on.
That would then take the United Kingdom towards a political crisis. For the only person who can sack the prime minister is the monarch, and there are limits by convention to what the sovereign will do in these situations. Even if the House of Commons as a whole gave him a vote of no confidence he could ask for there to be a general election instead of resigning. And, remarkably, he could use this threat of a general election to avoid any full House of Commons vote. He would be holding the constitution hostage.
But even if Johnson wins today’s vote, and thereby avoids an immediate constitutional crisis, his position will remain weak politically unless there is emphatic endorsement of his leadership. This is because the prime minister needs an ongoing bloc of support in the House of Commons to ensure financial measures and legislation are passed and to defeat opposition motions. The more fractured his majority, the less he will be able to carry on with the business of governing. On paper he may still have a majority but in reality, it may be more like a coalition.
So if he does not resign and if he does not gain resounding support, the onward grind of government will mean that Johnson’s political position will weaken week by week, as he seeks to gain support for policies and new initiatives from his backbenchers. He may avoid another party vote of confidence for another year under the current rules, but he will be in office but not really in power.
The lack of a codified constitution thereby both helps and hinders a weak prime minister. He or she cannot be sacked easily, but they can be placed under prolonged political torment. And this is the most likely consequence of today’s political excitements.
For a country without a codified constitution, the United Kingdom has seen many prime ministers in apparent positions of power lose office because of a lack of support among political colleagues – most notably Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and Tony Blair in 2007. Indeed, premierships in the United Kingdom are as likely to end between general elections as at general elections. Political failures do sound in the constitution, even if there are no formal and explicit arrangements.
What is happening in the United Kingdom this week is another attempted exercise in the unwritten constitution being used to eject a prime minister who has lost significant political support. The ejection may come soon, or it may come later. It is unlikely (though not impossible) that Johnson can recover his former political dominance. Johnson may seek to game the constitution to remain in power, but it is more likely that a means will be found to dump him.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.