UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his resignation on Thursday following mounting pressure from lawmakers in his own party to stand down.
Under the UK political system, between elections, only Conservative members of Parliament have the ability to remove a sitting Conservative Prime Minister.
So, what happens to the UK government when a Prime Minister resigns, and how is a new leader elected?
When will a new leader be in place?
During his statement Johnson said he will not leave office immediately, but will wait until his successor is chosen.
“I’ve today appointed a cabinet to serve, as I will, until a new leader is in place,” he said.
Johnson said that the timeline for the process will be announced next week, but it has been suggested he could remain in power until the Conservative Party conference in October.
Former British Prime Minister Sir John Major said it would be “unwise and may be unsustainable” for Johnson to remain in office for an extended period of time while a new Conservative leader is chosen.
“The proposal for the Prime Minister to remain in office – for up to three months — having lost the support of his Cabinet, his Government and his parliamentary party is unwise, and may be unsustainable,” Major wrote in a letter to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, Graham Brady.
And Dominic Cummings, who served as Johnson’s most senior adviser before becoming an outspoken critic of the Prime Minister, warned against allowing him to stay in post.
“We’re all in for a nightmare if he’s allowed to squat,” said Cummings.
Recent precedent shows that the time taken to choose a new leader can vary.
After Theresa May resigned on May 24, 2019 it took until July 24 for Boris Johnson to take over, but when David Cameron resigned on June 24, 2016 it took just a few weeks for May to take office on July 13.
Who will be Prime Minister while all this happens?
As Johnson indicated in his resignation speech, he plans to stay in office until a successor is chosen.
That’s what would happen under normal circumstances: A Prime Minister who has resigned as party leader stays in office as caretaker Prime Minister until there is a new party leader.
But it’s not clear that the Conservative Party will stand for that in Johnson’s case.
One alternative would be for Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab to step in as caretaker. There’s no precedent for that – but there’s also no precedent for more than 50 government officials to resign in two days in order to force a Prime Minister out.
Will Johnson’s resignation trigger a general election?
No. It starts the Conservative Party process for choosing a new leader of the party.
UK Prime Ministers are not directly elected by the people; Johnson is Prime Minister because he is the head of the largest party in the House of Commons.
The Conservatives will still be the largest party after Johnson quits, so the new head of the party will become Prime Minister.
How is the new Conservative Party leader chosen?
Leadership candidates need the support of at least eight lawmakers.
If there are more than two candidates, Conservative Party lawmakers hold round after round of votes to whittle the number of leadership candidates down to two.
Then Conservative Party members nationwide vote – by mail – between the two finalists.
The winner becomes leader of the party – and Prime Minister.
Is there any way to force Johnson to leave before a new Conservative Party leader is chosen?
Conservative lawmakers could, in theory, try to force him out themselves by calling a vote of confidence among Tory MPs. But Johnson survived a vote like that just a month ago.
Under current party rules, that means there can’t be another party confidence vote in him for 12 months.
The rules could be changed, but it’s not clear the Conservative Party wants to start that kind of infighting when Johnson has already said he’s going, and when a leadership contest is under way.
Can’t the opposition do anything to force Johnson out?
Labour leader Keir Starmer said Thursday that if the Conservatives didn’t push Johnson out immediately, the opposition would call a confidence vote in the government among the entire House of Commons.
If the opposition won, it could theoretically lead to a general election – but even with all the chaos in the Conservative Party at the moment, they still have a big majority in the House of Commons, and they’re not likely to want a general election at the same time as a leadership election. So the chances of the opposition bringing the government down now are slim.
When Johnson does finally leave Downing Street, what happens?
He submits his resignation to the Queen, in person.
The Palace will announce officially that Queen Elizabeth II has accepted Johnson’s resignation, and will say who she has invited to become Prime Minister to replace him. That person will then go to meet the Queen to accept the invitation. This is a formality.
Does the new Prime Minister have to call a general election?
No. The United Kingdom isn’t scheduled to have another general election until December 2024.
The new Prime Minister could choose to ask Parliament to vote for an early election, but isn’t required to do so.