Can the government function until we get a new prime minister?

British politics in limbo as Boris Johnson set to stay while Tories choose next leader

Downing Street in the spotlight
(Image credit: Carlos Jasso/AFP via Getty Images)

Serious doubts have been expressed about whether the government can continue to function while Boris Johnson remains in office as a lame duck prime minister.

Following his dramatic resignation on Thursday, Johnson vowed to stay in No. 10 until a new Tory leader is chosen. However, with many posts still unfilled following the mass ministerial walk-out of the past few days, the ability of the government to carry out its duties has been called into question.

Urgent questions

With fears mounting of paralysis at Westminster, deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner put forward an urgent question in the Commons on Thursday.

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“The chaos of the last three days is more than just petty Tory infighting,” she told MPs. “These actions have serious consequences for the running of our country.

“In the middle of the deepest cost-of-living crisis for a generation, with families unable to make ends meet, a dangerous war in Europe threatening our borders, and a possible trade crisis in Northern Ireland, Britain has no functioning Government,” she said, asking, for example: “What contingency plans are in place to deal with emergencies in the short term?”

Mass ministerial resignations

With dozens of ministerial vacancies left open, “questions are being asked about how departments can function without a full team in place, with important bill committees being cancelled, holding up the government’s legislative agenda”, reported PoliticsHome.

By Thursday, 11 bill committees, where new laws are scrutinised, had been cancelled because ministers were not available. Rayner told MPs that following the resignation of Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis on Thursday morning, only two ministers were now authorised to sign warrants for the security services using intelligence powers.

Some departments, such as Education and Levelling Up, Housing and Communities were left with just one minister following the avalanche of resignations at cabinet and junior ministerial level.

Calling the current situation “unprecedented”, Sky News said Johnson “will have to convince MPs to help him form a stable government, but it is unclear whether he will be able to do so”.

“If he is unable to,” says the broadcaster, “he may be forced to leave sooner than he intends, or he will be forced out by his colleagues.”

Citing the importance of junior ministers in ensuring laws are passed, Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, told The Guardian that an option for Johnson “would be to swallow his pride and reemploy them all rather than employ a new group who have little knowledge of the brief. It is not as if they resigned over policy differences.”

Can the civil service step in?

Dr Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society, told PoliticsHome that “without political leadership, much of government cannot function”.

She said the civil service can “to a degree keep the wheels turning”, but political decisions cannot be taken without ministers.

This view was shared by former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell, who told BBC Radio 4: “It’s very difficult to run a government without ministers.”

“Our system requires civil servants to advise ministers and ministers to decide. And if there’s no one to decide, that can’t go on too long,” he said, adding: “We can manage this for a while, for a few days, maybe even a few weeks, but it’s absolutely not a good place to be.”

No new business

Having hurriedly cobbled together a makeshift cabinet that can see him through the next few months, Johnson has said he will not try to implement new policies while the Conservatives choose a new leader.

Promising not to introduce “major changes of direction” including tax decisions over the coming weeks, the move “deepens concerns over paralysis in the aftermath of his resignation announcement”, said The Guardian.

Confidence votes and constitutional powers

With talk of a caretaker prime minister being appointed until the Tory leadership contest has concluded receding, Labour has threatened to call a confidence vote in the government unless Boris Johnson stands down immediately.

The Daily Telegraph said: “Parliamentary convention says a government that cannot command the confidence of MPs should either resign or go to the country in a general election.”

This would put Tory MPs in a serious bind, having to choose between backing a leader they have just ousted or bringing down the entire government, which would prompt an election they could then lose.

North of the border, The National reported that the SNP has suggested that the UK government sign over powers to a “fully functioning” government in Holyrood.

Glasgow Central MP Alison Thewliss described Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis as “one of the last remaining living crew on the ghost ship HMG”, telling the Commons: “In an effort to assist the burden of the skeleton crew that remain, would perhaps he like to arrange for the signing of a Section 30 order to begin the process of moving some of the functions of Government to a fully-functioning set of ministers in Holyrood?”

Looking longer term, Mary Dejevsky in The Independent said the chaos of the past few days “proves that Britain cannot muddle along without a written constitution any longer”.

“The increasing fluidity of the UK system – as the ‘gentlemanly’ norms of the past hold less and less sway – cries out for a set of written rules, in place of the body of law and inherited custom that prevails today,” she wrote.

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Elliott Goat is a freelance writer at The Week Digital. A winner of The Independent's Wyn Harness Award, he has been a journalist for over a decade with a focus on human rights, disinformation and elections. He is co-founder and director of Brussels-based investigative NGO Unhack Democracy, which works to support electoral integrity across Europe. A Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellow focusing on unions and the Future of Work, Elliott is a founding member of the RSA's Good Work Guild and a contributor to the International State Crime Initiative, an interdisciplinary forum for research, reportage and training on state violence and corruption.