The writer is director of the Institute for Government, a think-tank
He went, at last. In writing his account of his time in No 10 — as he surely will — Boris Johnson may want to improve on his speech of resignation, delivered from the traditional podium in front of its steps. Its sour accusations fell short of the Churchillian standards to which he likes to aspire, attributing his downfall to “the herd” of his party’s MPs rather than his own behaviour. No matter; he’s gone.
Or nearly. Johnson indicated that he intends to stay as prime minister until the party picks his successor. The party will make the schedule clear next week, he said, but hopes to conclude the two stages of voting by Conservative MPs and then members by the time of the party conference in October.
There is no formal word, not caretaker or interim, that describes the role Johnson now takes on. But here, as he did in office, he could cause real problems if he does not respect the conventions and principles that are supposed to guide it, many set out in the Cabinet Manual.
First, he has to construct a cabinet. There are encouraging signs that he recognises he must reach beyond the shrinking, shrill band of loyalists who saw in him either as a champion of their ideology or their best route to advancement. The appointment of Greg Clark to replace Michael Gove as secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, and Robert Buckland as Wales secretary, were good first steps.
But what is this new cabinet going to do? Nothing controversial, it is to be hoped. The principles in the manual for this circumstance are essentially those that constrain a government’s behaviour before an election: it must not do anything which would bind its successor in any substantial way. There is discretion to act. But it needs to have a light hand when it comes to major policy, contractual or appointment decisions, provided that this hiatus would not harm the national interest or prove very expensive.
This principle is not always observed and is hard to enforce in practice. Theresa May, in her closing moments as prime minister, committed the country to a net zero target which represents one of the most wide-ranging and expensive pledges of a government for many years. It passed almost without comment, partly because its implications and enactment were not immediate.
Given what is facing Johnson, the principle enormously narrows the scope on which he should be able to act. Much of the vast Queen’s Speech from earlier this summer — that sprawling bundle of wished-for legislation that his government crafted — presumably fades away. That may take with it some of the most controversial elements, such as the privatisation of Channel 4 and the revision of human rights legislation.
The fate of the Northern Ireland protocol, even more controversial with its proposal unilaterally to depart from the treaty signed with the EU, and with the extensive powers it grants to ministers, is probably sealed too. For a few months, at least — the wide range of candidates who might emerge as prime minister makes it hard to judge whether Johnson’s successor will jettison the bill with relief or embrace it with new vigour.
Hardest is the question of tax measures. Large-scale tax changes ought to be unthinkable, and even given Johnson’s ability to ignore convention, he surely could not get these through. But smaller financial measures that may test convention — an impromptu cut in fuel duty, for example — are possible. Harmless, you might think — but if Nadhim Zahawi, Johnson’s chancellor of two days, were a candidate for the leadership (and there are reasons to think he might be), it could be seen as tilting the playing field. The last thing the new prime minister needs is the perception of bending the rules to get the job. To the contrary, the first task will be to repair public trust in politics and in the Conservative party.
That leaves Johnson with a very constrained field around which to roam. He cited on resignation three achievements of which he was particularly proud: Brexit, vaccines and Ukraine. He surely will try to make more of the last one, where he has warm public support and, this week, a strikingly strong endorsement of the UK’s stance from Labour too.
In that case, he may find, in yet more televised encounters with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, an outlet for the Churchillian language — and even more, a degree of Churchillian conviction and commitment — that he failed to achieve in almost every other domain of his short and turbulent premiership.