At Westminster, there was a sense the end might finally be near for a prime minister who has defied many previous predictions of his demise. Johnson, who helped the Conservative Party win a landslide election in 2019, has become a political liability after scandals that eroded public trust.
The bombshell resignations on Tuesday of two of his most senior cabinet ministers Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid launched what the Institute of Government think tank called a record number of departures, with at least 44 Conservative politicians leaving their posts over two days.
In their resignation letters and speeches in the House of Commons, ministers said they were fed up with Johnson and his self-inflicted scandals, stoked by his prevarications, with one former official saying “enough is enough.” But by all accounts, Johnson was not ready to go willingly. At a fiery session of the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions, he dismissed those calling for him to resign.
“Frankly, the job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances when you have been handed a colossal mandate is to keep going, and that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. By late afternoon, a queue of cabinet ministers had gathered at the prime minister’s office at 10 Downing Street to tell him, the British press reported, that his time was up.
The state broadcaster said this group included Nadhim Zahawi, who less than 24 hours earlier was appointed as chancellor, the second-most-important job in government. Also joining the mutiny was Michael Gove, the leveling up secretary and a longtime Johnson frenemy who found himself sacked by the prime minister at the end of the day in what the press dubbed “a revenge reshuffle” of his cabinet.
Johnson’s personal parliamentary secretary, James Duddridge, told Sky News on Wednesday night that the prime minister was in a “buoyant mood and will fight on.” Duddridge said Johnson was planning to unveil a “new economic plan” to address cost-of-living pressures. A fellow Conservative appeared later on the same channel to call Duddridge “delusional.”
And so the day went. Although departing government officials highlighted different rationales, their reasoning broadly had to do with mistrust and mismanagement. Javid, the former health secretary, delivered a searing critique of the prime minister, telling Parliament that “treading the tightrope between loyalty and integrity has become impossible in recent months.”
He said that late last year, he was assured by Johnson’s aides that no parties had taken place at Downing Street during pandemic lockdowns. A police investigation into “Partygate” ended with 126 fines, including one for Johnson.“This week again, we have reason to question the truth and integrity of what we have all been told,” Javid said, referring to a separate scandal involving Chris Pincher, who had recently quit as deputy chief whip following accusations that he assaulted two men while drunk.
“This week again, we have reason to question the truth and integrity of what we have all been told,” Javid said, referring to a separate scandal involving Chris Pincher, who had recently quit as deputy chief whip following accusations that he assaulted two men while drunk.Downing Street initially said Johnson was not aware of any previous allegations of misconduct when the prime minister gave Pincher a key government post, but then later backtracked to acknowledge that Johnson knew about an investigation that upheld similar complaints in 2019.“The problem starts at the top,” Javid declared
As Johnson sat on the frontbenches, his former health minister laid into him, saying that “loyalty must go both ways” and that it “is not fair” that government ministers had to appear on TV news shows every morning defending Johnson’s stories that “don’t stand up, don’t hold up.”As Javid was speaking, another minister quit.In a sign of the mood of the session, at one point a group of opposition Labour Party lawmakers waved at Johnson, shouting, “Bye.”
Rob Ford, a politics expert at the University of Manchester, said there were two ways of explaining why a tipping point had been reached. “People looked at [the Pincher scandal] and thought, it keeps happening, it’s going to keep happening, it will never stop,” Ford said. “Blunter critics of the Johnson administration will say, what took you so long to arrive at that conclusion?
But politics is a tribal business. He won a big election. And regicide is hard. But it’s accumulated pressure, at some point people just snap, even loyal people.”Under current Conservative Party rules, there’s no formal way for the prime minister’s critics to quickly get rid of him if he doesn’t want to go. Since Johnson survived narrowly a no-confidence vote from his party last month, he is officially insulated from additional party challenges for a year.
But a push is underway for the powerful 1922 Committee of Conservative lawmakers,which makes the rules, to change them. A meeting of that committee on Wednesday concluded with a decision not to make changes before new members are elected on Monday. Some of those campaigning for roles have suggested that they would support allowing another no-confidence vote.
In the meantime, the number of resignations, including from former loyalists, continued to climb by the hour on Wednesday. In one letter, five lawmakers resigned in one go. “It has become increasingly clear that the Government cannot function given the issues that have come to light and the way in which they have been handled,” they wrote.
In another letter, Will Quince, children and families minister, said he could not accept the way in which he was asked to defend Downing Street to the media over a scandal involving Pincher. He had been given “inaccurate” information about Johnson’s knowledge of events and had “accepted and repeated those assurances in good faith,” he said. - washingtonpost