Number 10 needs a caretaker

But who’s up for the thankless task of cleaning up Boris’s mess? 

Artillery Row

Boris Johnson has achieved the political exit he may not have wanted, but which feels appropriate. Tuesday night’s visitation from his Cabinet colleagues — including a Chancellor who had accepted the Treasury brief from him only the day before — was how the Conservative party assassinates its Caesar. Et tu Zahawi? 

Johnson, author of The Dream of Rome, doubtless takes a crumb of comfort that before he went down in a frenzy of stabbings, he at least plunged his dagger deep into Michael Gove. Taking one of his assailants down with him was an achievement even Julius Caesar failed to pull off. What Johnson’s exit lacked in Roman nobility it made up for in classical drama.

Can it be left to Johnson to find willing dupes?

Johnson has, of course, resigned as leader of the Conservative party and not yet as prime minister. The two need not be held in tandem: Winston Churchill’s first four months as prime minister coincided with the ailing Neville Chamberlain retaining the party leadership — but that circumstance was different, taking place in the context of a cross-party wartime coalition. What we have now is a brief Tory leadership interregnum from which a new leader will emerge.

However, someone has to be prime minister whilst the majority party in parliament works out who amongst them should succeed. As the incumbent, it is logical that it is Johnson who remains for a few weeks, or more likely months, more.

But is that realistic? Is Johnson in the right temper, the right frame of mind, to remain in Downing Street, potentially through the summer and into the beginning of autumn? How can he interact co-operatively with Cabinet members towards whom he now feels personal animus?

Whatever behind the scenes tension there was with Rishi Sunak, how are we expected to imagine Johnson can plausibly show solidarity with Nadhim Zahawi, whose published letter telling him to get out of Downing Street was a final straw in the suffocating haystack heaped upon the prime minister?

The idea of Johnson remaining a caretaker prime minister is constitutionally fine, it’s just not politically plausible. But what’s the alternative?

The simplest solution would be to restore the status quo ante

The deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, could stand-in as acting PM — as he did when Johnson was on a ventilator in St Thomas’s hospital — until the new leader is announced. But who, if not Johnson, is going to exercise the formidable power of patronage during this period, given that there are fifty vacated ministerial and related government positions to fill?

Can it be left to Johnson to find willing dupes to accept these roles in a lame duck government, knowing that the next prime minister will immediately reshuffle to create his or her own team? Who wants the responsibility of being a minister or PPS or envoy for a few weeks before being sacked?

But if not Johnson, would Raab be able to make a sweeping series of appointments that could seek to shape the course of government? These roles include finding a new Education Secretary, given than Michelle Donelan resigned within forty-eight hours of accepting Johnson’s appointment to the role. It has come to something when ministerial office is offered on the terms of a zero-hour contract.

The simplest solution would be to restore the status quo ante and reappoint those who have resigned this week to their former roles. Doing so would be deeply unorthodox. But this is an exceptionally weird state of affairs requiring a certain creativity to get the business of government ticking over whilst the chaos subsides.

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