Why can't or doesn't Boris Johnson resign? In other parliamentary democracies, when the government loses support in the parliament (losing majority/vote of confidence) they typically resign and the speaker (or similar) gets the task to try form a new government. If that fails an election is held.

As far as I understand, Tories have a good chance at winning a new general election and such an election would likely lead to a no deal Brexit, which is what Johnson desires. Now he is a lame duck with not enough support in the parliament, which should be the worst position he could be in. It would be better to be an expeditionary government until an election, that could be successful so why doesn't he just resign?

Clarification of what I meant with the speaker: AFAIK, after an election, a vote of confidence and similar situations where the current government has lost support, the speaker or similar contact the leaders of the parties and ask them if they can form a new government and if someone says yes, give her/him some time to negotiate with the other parties. Rinse and repeat until either a new government is formed or it has failed too many times and a new election is the only solution.

  • 2
    There are plenty of governments that start without a majority, so that's no reason. BoJo hasn't lost a confidence vote either.
    – MSalters
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 7:17
  • 3
    @MSalters, technically no, but the reason he withdrew the whip from 21 MPs last week is because they rebelled in a vote which he'd told them to treat as a confidence vote. Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 7:40
  • 2
    @MSalters The withdrawal of the whip from 21 Conservatives, (whilst those voting against May's deal were never so disciplined) has been justified by Johnson and others as it having been tantamount to a "vote of confidence". So if it was a v of c , it might well be asked why the government did not resign. As for an election what exactly is it about the expression "Fixed Term" that they don't understand? A further referendum has been refused on the basis that people voted once in 2016. So why have another election when we had one in 2017?
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 8:49
  • 1
    @d-b When you say "other parliamentary democracies" - to where are you largely referring? Do you have the Canadian system in mind? If so please say.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 8:54
  • 3
    From what I've read of him, it seems likely that Johnson wants to be Prime Minister far more than he wants a no-deal Brexit, or any other particular legislation. It's an ego thing, you know?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 18:13

3 Answers 3


The rub is that if he resigns there's no guarantee he'll get an election.

The ad-hoc coalition that opposes a no-deal Brexit could form a government. Since some answers provide contrary opinion, here's a further quote from the Cabinet manual of what happens a government resigns without having a majority:

2.13 Where a range of different administrations could potentially be formed, political parties may wish to hold discussions to establish who is best able to command the confidence of the House of Commons and should form the next government. The Sovereign would not expect to become involved in any negotiations, although there are responsibilities on those involved in the process to keep the Palace informed. [...]

2.17: The nature of the government formed will be dependent on discussions between political parties and any resulting agreement. Where there is no overall majority, there are essentially three broad types of government that could be formed:

• single-party, minority government, where the party may (although not necessarily) be supported by a series of ad hoc agreements based on common interests;

• formal inter-party agreement, for example the Liberal–Labour pact from 1977 to 1978; or

• formal coalition government, which generally consists of ministers from more than one political party, and typically commands a majority in the House of Commons.

Even if this turns out to be a short-lived government, it could be enough to oversee an extension letter to the EU, which would certainly look bad enough for Johnson with respect to his "do or die" promise of leaving the EU by Oct 31. (And if this needs reminded, until BoJo took over recently, the Conservative party had sunk to the historically unprecedented 5th position in polls and less than 10% voter share at the EU recent election, largely for failure to deliver Brexit.)

On the flip side, it seems Johnson would have to break the Benn law if he doesn't ask for an extension himself if he stays as PM. So unless he finds a loophole to that law, he is indeed between a rock and a hard place with respect to his "do or die" promise...

Another option for him that is being discussed in the media is to stay on as PM and test the limits of laws/constitution by simply refusing to send the letter. There is talk of jail time and him becoming a "martyr".

As an additional point, there are two types of PM resignations contrasted in the Cabinet Manual (2.10):

  • resignation from the "individual position as Prime Minister"
  • PM resignation "on behalf of the government"

The former is supposed to happen while his/her party still commands a majority in Commons, and then the successor PM is chosen by the governing/majority party or coalition (2.18). The latter is supposed to happen when the party in government no longer commands a majority in Commons, and leads to a wider consultation process as quoted above (2.17).

Ultimately it is the Queen's responsibility, advised by the outgoing PM, to chose the "the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House" (2.8-2.10). The Manual also says in 2.10 that the outgoing PM does not present his resignation to the Queen without being able to make a recommendation for a successor PM. That might be a reason why a PM would delay announcing his resignation in circumstances where the successor (and even the process for choosing one) is uncertain, although one also has to distinguish between a public announcement of the intention to resign, and [later] formally presenting the resignation to the Queen.

Finally, the OP comments below that a Corbyn government would (probably) be "even more chaotic" than the current situation, and so that the electorate would soon return BoJo triumphantly to power (somehow). My guess is BoJo himself is not so convinced it would play out this way. The OP assumes that the electorate will be very forgiving of BoJo in such circumstances, perhaps following a "people vs. Parliament" campaign, the specter of which some have compared to the Conservative stance in the 1914 political crisis. I think it's too chancy for me to comment on the likelihood of something like that succeeding as planned, especially if the Conservatives are not going to be the only game in town playing the hard-Brexit card. Insofar Johnson has not given Farage the unconditional promise of a hard Brexit that Farage demands for an alliance of sorts (a non-aggression pact, as Frage describes it.)

  • But wouldn't such a government be a win for Tories since it probably would be even more chaotic than the current situation? It shouldn't be a problem to explain to the voters "I did my best but as you noticed, som of 'my' MPs didn't support a hard brexit and instead I lost my majority and was forced to execute policies I didn't support or believe in, which made me resign".
    – d-b
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 15:00
  • @d-b: Theresa May was not forgiven something like that... The popularity of the Tory party sank to historically unprecedented lows until BoJo took over and promised to deliver Brexit by Oct 31st "do or die". Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 16:38
  • @d-b: Remember the results of the recent EU elections? The Consivaties came in 5th, with less than 10% of the vote: bbc.com/news/uk-politics-48417228 Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 16:41
  • @d-b: Let me put this another way: if you think it's that obvious he should have resigned, which you seem to do, why do you think he hasn't done it? Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 16:50
  • I have no clue. If you consider your historical reputation, you are much better off resigning in a hopeless situation than trying to cling to power. C.f., Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
    – d-b
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 20:53

In the UK if Boris resigned it would simply mean that some other Tory takes over. There would be a Tory leadership contest.

Basically the Tories can't voluntarily stop being the government now, all they can do is wait for the next scheduled general election (in 2022). They attempted to trigger an election twice in the past week, but the law (that they wrote) states that they need a 2/3rds majority and the opposition parties won't give it to them.

All resigning would do is seal Boris' legacy of failure, the shortest tenure as PM in history, lost his majority... The only way out for him is to win a general election, which will be on the opposition parties' timetable, or to try some shenanigans to subvert the law requiring an extension to Article 50 to be sought.

  • @SteveMelnikoff corrected.
    – user
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 11:25
  • 3
    "the Tories can't voluntarily stop being the government now". In theory, Johnson could resign, and advise the Queen to appoint Corbyn as PM. In practice, that does not seem very likely... Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 12:03
  • There is no guarantee some "other Tory takes over" (the government). See Peter Taylor's 2nd quote; 2.20, what happens when the (UK) government doesn't have a majority and resigns... actually I'll add more of that to my own answer. Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 16:31
  • 1
    Tories would need to form a government coalition if Johnson were to resign. That is not a given. Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 20:21
  • How can a party be forced to be the government if they don't want to? Individual ministers can resign and then a replacement must be found. Even if the PM doesn't accept the resignation, the minister could just go home and stop doing her/his work. The actual government must be able to do the same thing!?!?!?
    – d-b
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 20:56

In other parliamentary democracies, when the government loses support in the parliament (losing majority/vote of confidence) they typically resign and the speaker (or similar) gets the task to try form a new government.

Firstly, I'm not sure that your assumptions are correct, for multiple reasons.

  • The Speaker of the House of Commons is supposed to be politically neutral, and represents the legislature in disagreements with the executive. It would make no sense for the Speaker to try to form a government. I wonder whether the rôles you're thinking of are actually more parallel to the Leader of the House, a ministerial position. (Although I should add that in the context of Westminster, it's considered a bit of a dead-end ministerial rôle, and certainly not one of the great offices of state).
  • There's a lot of variety between democracies about how votes of confidence are handled. Similarly, there's a lot of variety about how resignations are handled. In the other parliamentary system which I know a non-trivial amount about, a vote of confidence names the replacement prime minister, so the losing PM is not in office to resign after losing it; on the other hand, if they choose to resign then they remain in office on a provisional basis until a replacement is chosen, but generally that would be either the same prime minister with a new coalition based on new concessions, or the leader of an opposition party.

The Cabinet manual sets out the current understanding of how the system works in the UK.

2.18 Where a Prime Minister chooses to resign from his or her individual position at a time when his or her administration has an overall majority in the House of Commons, it is for the party or parties in government to identify who can be chosen as the successor.
2.20 Where a range of different administrations could be formed, discussions may take place between political parties on who should form the next government. In these circumstances the processes and considerations described in paragraphs 2.12–2.17 would apply.

So resigning doesn't trigger a general election. Since the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, that requires either a motion of Parliament with a super-majority, a vote of no confidence and a failure to find an alternative, or the expiry of the Parliament after 5 years.

  • 1
    The second bullet refers to a constructive vote of no confidence. This is common in Germany, I think they invented it. It is explicitly decided upon to prevent a repeat of the Weimar republic, when democracy was often indecisive due to internal strife.
    – MSalters
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 9:17
  • Also on the second bullet point, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act specifies what the wording of the vote of no confidence must be in order to trigger the Act: it's simply "That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.". It cannot name a successor PM - though in theory, there's nothing to stop the Commons having a separate vote to recommend someone to the Queen (as happens, for example, in the Scottish Parliament). Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 10:51
  • @SteveMelnikoff, I'm not sure what the relevance of your comment is. Do I need to make it clearer that the first half of the answer is a frame challenge? Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 11:18
  • It's more that the constructive VoNC used elsewhere makes a lot of sense - but the FTPA currently prevents that, and would require either a change of law, or a new convention whereby a separate motion is made recommending a new PM. I don't think that you need to change your answer; I just wanted to point out that changing to the proposed system would not be trivial. Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 11:30
  • 1
    @Denis, I don't understand the basis on which you claim "MPs wanted" anything when the evidence you present is that the Speaker needed to break a tie between equal camps of MPs. And he's not siding with the majority but with the status quo ante. However, consider this direct quote from Harriet Harman in launching her campaign to be the next Speaker: "The Speaker has to be scrupulously neutral as between different views within the House. But the Speaker is not neutral between parliament and the executive. The Speaker has to be on parliament’s side and stand up for parliament". Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 19:48

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .