With Boris Johnson determined to remain in office until his successor is chosen, Bronwen Maddox sets out what he now needs to do for the sake of his party and for politics
Finally, the pressure was too much even for Boris Johnson to withstand. One of the most controversial and idiosyncratic figures of British public life has at last been forced to quit the stage. He won no applause for a resentful leaving speech blaming the “herd” of his own MPs for bringing him to that point – not acknowledging that this was a consequence of his own behaviour.
So, he has gone – except not quite yet. Having stepped down as party leader to enable the leadership contest to begin, he intends to stay as prime minister until MPs and then party members elect his successor. That could be months. And that could cause real problems.
It is possible that the Conservative party concludes that he should not continue as a caretaker even for a few months. But if he does have that role, as he seems to want, he needs to take care – in contrast to the manner in which he has governed.
As prime minister now, he needs to form a functioning Cabinet. Not easy when many members have just walked out the door – and he sacked one of his most senior and most skilled in Michael Gove. First signs offer hope that he will reach into the large numbers of competent former ministers exiled to the back benches by his insistence on ideological agreement. The appointment of Greg Clark to take charge of levelling up is one; so is the return of Robert Buckland as Welsh secretary. Johnson needs not to let the Brexiteers who have been loyal to him to dominate for the sake of the party and its relations with public and parliament,.
Johnson also needs to accept that he cannot do much in these months – and nothing that is contentious. Very likely, Ukraine will be prominent. His vigorous support for President Zelensky has had the warm support of public opinion.
But much of the vast and sprawling programme in the recent Queen’s Speech will now need to pause until a new leader is picked, particularly the controversial elements such as Channel 4 privatisation and probably human rights reform.
Highly controversial legislation relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the sweeping powers it gives ministers, probably now enters paralysis as well. The European Union will not bother to give one more breath of negotiating time to Johnson.
The tasks are not ordinary ones for whoever follows Johnson. They will start with an unusual element – to rebuild public trust in government, in the government of the day and in the Conservative party. All big parties these days represent wide coalitions, but Johnson’s brilliance and incompetence was to draw together a particularly wide span of public support and then shatter it. Johnson’s successor will need to try to bring together a divided party. Only after that can the next prime minister try to put together a programme to address the formidable problems which now face the UK.