LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday was fighting for his premiership, following fresh resignations from his inner team and renewed calls from within his own party for him to step down.
But critics were quick to note that the change some people want is at the very top.
The scandal dubbed “Partygate” continues to engulf the British government. London’s Metropolitan Police are investigating a dozen gatherings — some at the prime minister’s office or residence, some at the Cabinet office — for potential criminal violations of the government’s own coronavirus restrictions. A report by civil servant Sue Gray this week determined that there were “failures of leadership and judgment.”
But while questions of criminality and accusations of hypocrisy remain dominant, Johnson is also taking heat for violating parliamentary codes of conduct, allegedly “slurring” the leader of the opposition Labour Party and potentially misleading lawmakers. In Britain, lying to Parliament is serious business — and a sackable offense.
Conservative lawmaker Aaron Bell on Friday became the latest politician from Johnson’s party to announce he had submitted a formal letter calling for a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. Bell wrote that “the breach of trust that the events in No 10 Downing Street represent, and the manner in which they have been handled, makes his position untenable.”
To trigger a leadership challenge, 54 Conservative members of Parliament would have to submit letters of no confidence to the chair of the 1922 Committee, made up of backbench party members. At least eight lawmakers have publicly said they have submitted letters, but more may have done so privately.
Johnson has also been hit by five resignations in less than 24 hours. His communications director, chief of staff, private secretary and policy director all announced their departures on Thursday, with Elena Narozanski, his special adviser on women and equalities, following on Friday.
Johnson’s allies on Friday described some of the departures as a deliberate attempt by the prime minister to wrest control of the situation.
“The prime minister was absolutely clear on Monday that there would be changes at the top of Number 10, and that is what he has delivered,” Energy Minister Greg Hands told Sky News. “The Sue Gray report update said that there were failings at the top of the operation.”
The shake-up has been referred to in Parliament and the British press as “Operation Save Big Dog,” a phrase credited to Johnson himself, although a Downing Street spokesperson said last month, “We absolutely do not recognize this phrase.”
But how much remains in Johnson’s control is a subject of debate.
“Meltdown in Downing Street,” said the Daily Mail in its front-page headline on Friday. “Will the last one to leave please turn out the lights?” the paper asked, a nod to a famous headline by the Sun newspaper during the 1992 election.
“Larry the Cat is all he’s got left,” joked Labour lawmaker Ed Miliband. Larry, also known as the “chief mouser,” is a tabby that resides at 10 Downing Street — and has outlasted multiple prime ministers.
Some of the staffers leaving have been linked to Partygate.
Martin Reynolds, the prime minister’s principal private secretary, was responsible for an email encouraging Downing Street staffers to “bring your own booze” to a party on May 20, 2020 — at a time when the public was banned by law from meeting with more than one person outside households.
Communications Director Jack Doyle reportedly gave a speech and distributed awards at a Christmas Party on Dec. 18, 2020, when indoor mixing was banned in London, according to ITV News.
Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield is said to have approved the talking point that there were “no parties” at Downing Street.
But Policy Director Munira Mirza, one of Johnson’s longest-serving allies, made clear she was leaving on principle.
In her scathing resignation letter, Mirza said Johnson should apologize for his “inappropriate and partisan” slur of Labour Party leader Keir Starmer.
“You are a better man than many of your detractors will ever understand,” she wrote, “which is why it is so desperately sad that you let yourself down by making a scurrilous accusation against the Leader of the Opposition.”
In Parliament on Monday, when he was supposed to be addressing Gray’s report, Johnson accused Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, of failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, a television personality who was revealed after his death in 2011 to be one of Britain’s worst child abusers. There is no evidence to back up this allegation against Starmer.
In Britain, lawmakers have the right under “parliamentary privilege” to say what they like in the House of Commons, without worrying about being sued for defamation.
Still, Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle rebuked the prime minister for his language, saying that while the comments were not “disorderly,” Hoyle was “far from satisfied” that they were appropriate.
Johnson later backed away from his comments, saying he was not referring to Starmer’s “personal record,” but he did not offer an apology.
Rishi Sunak, the British chancellor who would be a contender to replace Johnson, and Sajid Javid, the health secretary, have both distanced themselves from Johnson’s Savile comments.
It’s unclear whether a shake-up of Johnson’s inner circle will be enough to revive his troubled premiership.
Nikki da Costa, a former legislative affairs director at Downing Street, suggested that rebuilding the team around Johnson would not be easy. The operation at Number 10 is “demoralized, already quite dysfunctional, with remaining good people neutered by the hierarchical, often ego driven, culture that has developed,” she wrote on Twitter. “They can’t just bounce back, and they are also dealing with this and sudden loss of colleagues.”