How do you get rid of Boris Johnson?
Yesterday evening was a bad time to be Boris Johnson after the resignation of two of his big hitters, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid.
A rapid replacement with Nadhim Zahawi and Steve Barclay was clearly meant to cauterise the wound, but a steady drip of ministers and other frontbench MPs last night and this morning makes is clear there remains deep unhappiness with the PM.
But how can the party actually remove Boris Johnson if he is determined to stay?
The 1922 option
As is stands, party rules mean Conservative MPs cannot call for a fresh vote of confidence in their leader for another 11 months.
That’s because Johnson survived the vote exactly a month ago, albeit on less of the vote than he and his supporters would have liked. The rules stipulate formal leadership challenges can only be conducted once every 12 months.
At the time there were concerns that that vote was taking place too soon – specifically because it was before the two by-elections which we now know led to huge Tory defeats.
That hasn’t stopped some MPs resubmitting letters of no confidence to the 1922 committee representing backbenchers, but those letters are merely symbolic and won’t spark any action.
Simon Hoare MP has written to chair Graham Brady calling for a rules-change.
Reports suggest there is also a group of rebels plotting to take control of the committee to change those rules if the current executive does not.
Elections for the next 1922 executive begin soon (indeed, the date for the ballot was meant to be announced today) and several would-be candidates have already backed a change to the rules. Andrew Bridgen MP is, for example, planning to stand specifically on a platform to remove Johnson.
The 1922 committee election may therefore be a proxy vote on Johnson’s future.
The Keir Starmer option
The other alternative would be for the Opposition to call a vote of confidence on the entire government.
Keir Starmer will want to be confident of winning that vote before calling one and for that to happen, a majority of MPs would need to back a motion stating: “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government.”
There might now be enough Tory rebels wanting to oust Johnson but voting against their government as a whole might be a step too far as it will likely trigger an election in which many of them could lose their seats.
It’s not unheard of, though. And Labour whips will currently be running the numbers on that.
The Privileges Committee
It is also worth remembering that amid all the political drama, Westminster’s Privileges Committee is investigating claims the Johnson lied to parliament over the Downing Street parties.
We don’t know yet when the committee will report back, but if it rules Johnson did deliberately mislead parliament, it could recommend suspension or expulsion from the Commons.
This would then be voted on by MPs.
A suspension may not automatically lead to a resignation, particularly since Johnson altered the ministerial code to state ministers found to have broken the rules don’t have to leave government.
But expulsion means stripping someone of the right to be an MP. Historically, though, MPs have only been expelled for committing crimes such as perjury, fraud and corruption – so a move to expel Johnson would be highly unusual.
Cabinet or MP rebellion
If enough Cabinet members and MPs simply refuse to serve under Johnson, and refuse to back government legislation going forward, that would essentially leave him without any power. He’d have to respond somehow – whether that would be resignation or calling a general election.
But it’s a risky move for MPs, who could face losing the whip and deselection by their local parties. On the Cabinet side, a number of them are still expressing their support for Johnson so that seems a no-go for now.
So, short of a change to the 1922 rules or Labour triggering a motion of no confidence in the government, Boris Johnson could be immoveable for now.
It is ultimately up to a sitting Prime Minister to decide on his or her future and it’s not inconceivable that Johnson could aim to ride it out.