Johnson’s government threatens to implode as more ministers quit

Five more junior ministers resigned at once early on Wednesday afternoon.
Boris Johnson, UK prime minister. Image: Bloomberg

Boris Johnson is facing an onslaught of resignations from his government that threaten to bring an end to his premiership, even as he warned plotting rebel Conservatives he will fight any attempt to oust him.

Five more junior ministers resigned at once early on Wednesday afternoon, in what appeared to be a coordinated attempt to inflict maximum pressure on Johnson. The prime minister has lost now lost more than 25 people from his government, though none bigger than the first to go late Tuesday: Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid.

Much of the attention is now on the 5 p.m. meeting of the Tory 1922 Committee, which organises confidence votes in the party leader. After Johnson narrowly survived a leadership challenge last month, rebel Tories are trying to change the rules to allow a fresh ballot. One could come as soon as next week, a person familiar with the matter said. The prime minister’s press secretary said he would contest any leadership vote, and was confident he would win.

Gary Sambrook, a Tory MP on the executive of the 1922 Committee, told Johnson in the House of Commons on Wednesday that he must “take responsibility and resign.”

More than 40% of Johnson’s MPs voted against him last month, and it would take just 32 of his supporters changing sides to defeat him. It’s also possible that the endgame could come before an actual vote, if the committee’s leaders confront the prime minister and make it clear he has no option but to step down — as they did with his immediate predecessor, Theresa May.

Pressure mounts

Further Cabinet resignations will follow if Johnson ignores a request by party grandees to resign, according to three people familiar with the matter. Should Graham Brady, the powerful boss of 1922 Committee, inform Johnson he no longer has the confidence of the parliamentary party, they said, senior ministers would expect Johnson to then resign or agree a handover timetable.

Two of the people suggested Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove and Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey as those considering their positions. Neither responded to a request for comment.

Gove’s stance is being watched closely, with a person familiar with the matter refusing to deny reports he had told Johnson to resign. If he turns against the premier, it would conjure memories of how he derailed Johnson’s first bid for the top job in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Meanwhile Johnson made clear to lawmakers he is planning to stay on — though his attempt in Parliament to draw a line under the turmoil of the last 24 hours did not stem the flow of resignations.

‘Colossal mandate’

“The job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances when he’s been handed a colossal mandate is to keep going and that’s what I’ll do,” Johnson told MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions.

That remark was in response to Tory lawmaker Tim Loughton, who asked whether he thought “there are any circumstances in which he should resign.” It’s a signal that the premier sees his mandate as coming from the electorate — which delivered him a thumping majority in 2019 — rather than his MPs.

Resignations suffered by Boris Johnson July 5-6
  • Cabinet: Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid
  • Government ministers: Alex Chalk, Will Quince, Stuart Andrew, John Glen, Robin Walker, Victoria Atkins, Jo Churchill, Julia Lopez, Kemi Badenoch, Neil O’Brien, Lee Rowley, Alex Burghart, Mims Davies
  • Parliamentary private secretaries: Laura Trott, Selaine Saxby, Jonathan Gullis, Saqib Bhatti, Virginia Crosbie, Felicity Buchan, Claire Coutinho, David Johnston, Nicola Richards, Duncan Baker, Craig Williams
  • Conservative Party vice-chair: Bim Afolami
  • Trade envoys: Theo Clarke, Andrew Murrison

Johnson on Wednesday was facing MPs publicly for the first time since the resignations of Sunak and Javid the previous day. After the prime minister’s appearance in the Commons on Wednesday, Javid delivered an excoriating resignation statement in the chamber, saying “enough is enough.”

“I have concluded that the problem starts at the top, and that is not going to change,” Javid said.

The final straw for many has been Johnson’s handling of a scandal involving Chris Pincher, an MP who the prime minister promoted in February despite receiving prior warnings about inappropriate behavior.

But it follows months of turmoil over illegal parties in Downing Street during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the fallout from an attempt by Johnson last fall to protect a senior Conservative MP from sanction after he was found to have broken lobbying rules.

“I do fear that the reset button can only work so many times,” Javid said. “There’s only so many times you can turn that machine on and off before you realize that something is fundamentally wrong.”

Another vote

Johnson conceded in the Commons that he had mistakes over Pincher, who resigned as deputy chief whip last week following newspaper allegations he had groped two men. Pincher has denied the specific allegations while acknowledging in his resignation letter that he’d “embarrassed” himself and “caused upset” to others.

“I greatly regret that he continued in office,” Johnson told MPs. “In hindsight I should have realised he would not change.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer called Johnson a “pathetic spectacle,” describing the premier’s attempts to defend himself as the “dying act of his political career.”

The Pincher crisis was “about power, and the power the disgraced government minister had was handed to him by that prime minister,” Starmer said. “He’s only in power because he’s been propped up for months by a corrupted party defending the indefensible.”

Meanwhile more and more Tory MPs were taking the unusual step of publishing their letters of no confidence in Johnson on Wednesday afternoon.

© 2022 Bloomberg

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