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(Prime) Ministerial choices

An entertaining spectacle at Westminster and 10 Downing Street is also a showcase of decision making

Koen Smets
7 min readJul 8, 2022

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Over his political career, the United Kingdom’s (now acting) prime minister has gained a reputation for eccentricity, but these last few days he has arguably surpassed himself. His apparent disregard for the seriousness of members of his government quitting at an exponential rate not seen since the first wave of COVID-19 was baffling. It is unclear exactly who or what finally persuaded him that the credits were rolling on his premiership, but eventually he decided to concede to “the will of the parliamentary Conservative party”. Beyond all this entertainment, though, it is instructive to look at the decisions that were being considered, made, and postponed. Why did it take the ministers and aides so long to resign, and why did the prime minister keep on ducking calls for him to step down long after it was clear there was ever going to be just one outcome?

A deliberating government

The crisis around Boris Johnson has been festering for many months. In itself, the latest revelation (the PM falsely maintained he was unaware of the history of an MP’s inappropriate behaviour when promoting him) was an unlikely trigger for a single government resignation, let alone fifty of them. So, why did they apparently deliberate for so long, and why did it then suddenly all happen over barely 36 hours?

First, those who eventually chose to quit likely felt conflicted to some degree. They had all willingly joined the government for a variety of reasons, good reasons in their perception, and insofar as they had their questions about Mr Johnson, these did not outweigh their positive motives.

As this began to change, several forces may have attenuated their choice to quit. If you chose to pursue your ambition, and gained the appointment to a prestigious job, perhaps having had to make significant sacrifices, well, you’re not going to let it go for any old trivial reason. You’ll only quit if there is a really, really good justification to do so. And of course, it is quite possible that your threshold of what is unacceptable moves up with every new event. Anyone who has stayed for too long in a reasonably well paid…

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Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius