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The past few PMs of the UK have resigned. Most recently Liz Truss, after 45 days. I assume that the reason was that she felt that she was failing at her job, and the pressure to succeed was causing her too much stress.

If I make an analogy to the private market, let's say that for some reason I was appointed to be the CEO of Microsoft. I would be a bad CEO, after all, I have none of the theoretical or practical knowledge for that. I could either resign, or wait for the end of my term (after, say, 4 years). If I wait it out, Microsoft would definitely take a hit. However, it is a big company with many knowledgeable VPs, so if I just don't show up to work, Microsoft would probably survive. However, during my tenure, I would earn a CEO's salary, get to use the CEO's car+driver and make use of all of the personal assistants. Not a bad life.

I don't know what benefits the UK's PM gets, but I assume quite a lot. So why not just be a (bad) PM until you are voted out, meanwhile taking full advantage of all of the perks?

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    In UK politics many things work looking like they are done deliberately, although they are done forceably under the surface. If a PM resigns that because his/her counselors told them that if they do not resign there will be a vote and they will be ousted with very high to certain probability. It effectively comes out the same, so people take the slightly more face saving way out. But staying in isn't really an option. Oct 20, 2022 at 14:11
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    I'm not sure the CEO analogy works. Shareholders and other executive can and do remove bad CEOs before their contracts expire.
    – matt_black
    Oct 20, 2022 at 14:31
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    PM's don't have terms. They stay in office until they resign, which they've done for all manner of reasons. Oct 20, 2022 at 14:56
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    @SimonCrase You're confusing the sacking of a PM, which is done by the party room, with the sacking of a government, which is done by the head of state. The 1975 crisis in particular was the sacking of the Whitlam government and installing the conservative Fraser government as caretaker until the next election. This is fundamentally different to the PM changing, which doesn't change the government at all.
    – throx
    Oct 21, 2022 at 2:31
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    @matt_black And, analogously, the Conservative party could change their rules to allow a confidence vote and remove her as party leader, or Conservative MPs could call a vote of no confidence in the House of Parliament. It's true that they don't want to do either of those things, but they can get Truss to resign by using the threat of doing those things if she doesn't.
    – kaya3
    Oct 21, 2022 at 4:30

5 Answers 5

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While one would generally hope that Prime Ministers who clearly have no continued mandate would resign out of a sense of honour, at least in the last three cases they have resigned from their post when events were in motion to remove them anyway. If a Prime Minister were to decide to 'wait it out' and just fulfil the bare minimum requirements of that office, as you suggest, they would swiftly find themselves evicted through a confidence vote either in the House of Commons, or their own party. It's not like a job in a private corporation where an employee signs a contract to serve in the role for a certain amount of time; they can be forced out without recourse.

Despite Theresa May and Boris Johnson having won confidence motions in both the House of Commons and the Conservative parliamentary party - the latter of which supposedly meant they were safe from another confidence motion for 12 months - they each resigned once it became clear that the Executive of the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs intended to change that body's rules to allow a second confidence vote which it was widely expected they would lose. In Liz Truss's case, it was expected that the 1922 Committee would again change the rules - this time to allow a parliamentary party confidence vote within 12 months of taking office; she didn't even survive an initial vote. As Glorfindel points out in his answer, it's generally viewed as much better to leave rather than be forced out.

Furthermore, the ongoing perks of being a Prime Minister you refer to aren't even that fantastic considering the level of stress office-holders undergo - you get the use of No. 10 Downing Street, the use of the Chequers country house in Buckinghamshire, ministerial cars and so forth - plus a pay increase from £84k to £159k. This pay rise is obviously substantial, but tends to pale into insignificance compared to the fees which can be demanded on the after-dinner-speech circuit post-resignation; for example, just last week, Boris Johnson received a fee of $350,000 for a 30-minute speech to the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers conference. The Daily Mail reported in June 2022 that Theresa May had received £2.1 million in speech fees since leaving office.

The other financial perks are secured as soon as one walks into No. 10; former Prime Ministers may apply for £115k worth of Public Duty Costs Allowance per year, to be paid as expenses for continued public duties. There used to be a special pension for former Prime Ministers, but this has not been the case since the commencement of the Public Service Pensions Act 2013. Prime Ministers leaving office are also eligible for a lump-sum grant of a quarter of the annual salary (the additional Prime Minister bit, not the full £159k) under section 4 of the Ministerial and other Pensions and Salaries Act 1991.

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One possible reason is that they might fear a confidence motion; it's better to resign yourself than to be forced to resign.

Another reason could be that they have to take up a job (or something else that pays the bills, like being a speaker at conferences) after being Prime Minister. Taking advantage of the situation in that way could very much hinder your future prospects.

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  • Am I correct in thinking that a successful no-confidence motion would disband the entire government (not just the prime minister) and force an election? Oct 20, 2022 at 17:33
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    @user253751: This would have been the Conservative MPs voting that they had no confidence in their leader, not the House of Commons voting a lack of confidence in the government. The latter forces an election. The former tells the Conservative leader the MPs won't obey instructions anymore, and they have to resign. Oct 20, 2022 at 19:45
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A Prime Minister is still "Primus inter pares", first among equals, in the cabinet. When the cabinet decides that the PM must go, then the PM must go.

If the Prime Minister can't obtain the backing of their cabinet, they just can't continue. Johnson proved this, when he tried to stay on as minister after minister resigned.

If Truss had tried to stay on, there would have been a similar situation with a stream of resignations. Even when the Cabinet does sack a Prime Minister (as it did with Truss) it is formally a "resignation". (The alternative - staying on in defiance of Cabinet - involves an attempted coup, and dammit that is just not British.)

The analogy with a CEO is perhaps apt. If you were made CEO and "just didn't turn up", or were simply "bad at the job" you would be very rapidly removed by the Board. Some CEOs might try and "dig in" but actually when it becomes clear to a CEO that they don't have the confidence of the Board, most chose to resign with some sort of dignity.

And remember that Prime Minister is an office, not a job. There is no legal protection and no job security. The "board" (i.e. Cabinet) doesn't even need to "clear it with HR", they can just tell you "it's time to go" and you have the choice of "jump" or "be pushed". On the other hand, there is no "fixed term" for Prime Ministers. They occupy the office until either they resign, or they lose an election, or they die (technically the fourth way is "replaced by the monarch" but in practice, this doesn't occur).

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    "...most chose to resign with some sort of dignity." Sometimes they also might be offered money to do the dignified option, also known as the golden handshake. Oct 21, 2022 at 7:43
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I'm surprised no other answers have mentioned this: the end of a premiership is not necessarily the end of the prime minister's political career. David Cameron is the only 21st century prime minister that exited politics immediately after resigning as PM; Tony Blair became an ambassador, and the rest continued to serve as MPs.

An outgoing PM may still have some future political potential and could someday attain a leadership position again. But the number one thing they could do to destroy that prospect would be to hold onto power as long as possible until they're dragged out of office. That would destroy any standing they have with their party and the public.

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  • "Tony Blair became an ambassador" - well, kind of. Oct 23, 2022 at 10:25
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In the UK, it's common for public officials to step down when the arguments or media coverage become about them rather than about their politics or policies.

The person essentially becomes a distraction that prevents the organization from moving forward, so they place the welfare of the organization above themselves by stepping down.

To quote former Prime Minister David Cameron on why he stepped down as a backbencher:

As a former prime minister it is very difficult, I think, to sit as a backbencher and not be an enormous diversion and distraction from what the Government is doing.

Source

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