The office of Prime Minister exists based not on any specific law but on a number of unwritten constitutional conventions – it ‘emerged’, it was not a post that was specifically created. As such, a Prime Minister serves at the invitation of the Queen, who convention requires must appoint as prime minister the person most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons. It is not set out in any law that a serving PM must be an MP or even a Peer. The Conservatives – still the largest group in the Commons – could communicate that Boris is their choice for PM, perhaps over the weekend, compelling the Queen to invite him to form a government. Boris could almost immediately be created a member of the House of Lords (as is the case with individuals who are appointed as ministers but are not serving MPs) – arise Lord Johnson of Henley? He is unlikely, however, to be able to serve as Prime Minister in the Lords beyond the 2015 election. Fortunately, the House of Lords Reform Act of 2014 allows for life peers to ‘disclaim’ (resign) their titles and quit the Lords simply by writing to the Lord Chancellor (previously, life peers had no such right).
Alternately, a ‘caretaker’ Prime Minister could take over until Boris has been installed as an MP via a rapid by-election (possibly in Uxbridge). In 1834 the Duke of Wellington declined the invitation to form a Government but agreed instead to serve as caretaker PM for 25 days whilst Sir Robert Peel returned from Europe to take up the premiership. Alec Douglas Home was still the Earl of Home when appointed Prime Minister on 19 October 1963. Between 23 October (when he renounced his peerage) and 12 November (when he won a by-election for Kinross and West Perthshire), he served as Prime Minister without being a member of the Lords or the Commons.
A likely caretaker PM could be William Hague who, as First Secretary of State, remains the second highest ranking member of the Cabinet after the Prime Minister and the effective deputy leader of the Conservative Party (in Opposition he was designated ‘Senior Member of the Shadow Cabinet’). Because Hague has already announced his intention of standing down as an MP at the next election, he would be able to serve as neutral caretaker with no interest in retaining the premiership for himself or running in any future leadership contest.
The main wrinkles to such an immaculate succession for Boris are the Conservative grassroots, and the lack of a Conservative majority in the Commons. The Tory grassroots may feel they have not been adequately consulted over the choice of leader – just as they were never able to vote on the decision to enter a coalition with the Lib Dems. The rules for electing a new Conservative leader are quite specific, and are controlled by the 1922 Committee rather than the party leadership. The only room for manoeuvre comes if Boris is the only candidate for the leadership – as was the case when Michael Howard took over from Iain Duncan Smith in 2003. Then the contest effectively serves as a mere coronation. Such a scenario does require other leadership contenders – such as Theresa May or George Osborne – to be persuaded to stand aside.
The lack of a Conservative majority in the Commons is a much more significant problem for a Boris succession. It is unclear what Cameron’s resignation might mean for the Coalition – certainly Nick Clegg is likely to have a serious problem with Boris Johnson stepping in as unelected Prime Minister. Without the support of Lib Dem MPs the Government might fall if the Labour Party were to be able to table a motion of no confidence. (And, let’s face it, Speaker Bercow probably isn’t going to do much to stall such a motion given the hounding he has received from Conservative MPs over the summer).
Whilst it is theoretically possible that Boris could be Prime Minister by Monday, it is just as possible that the Government might be toppled by the following Friday. Boris would thus become the UK’s shortest serving prime Minister since the Earl of Bath, who was asked to form a government in 1746 but had to resign two days later when he could only find one minister willing to serve under him.
James Ford is a Senior Consultant at PLMR, specialising in transport, environment and digital policy. He was formerly the Adviser to the Digital Chamber of Commerce at the London Chamber of Commerce and an aide to Mayor of London Boris Johnson.
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