The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Boris Johnson’s latest scandal prompts resignation of top ministers

Britain's Health Secretary Sajid Javid, left, and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, right, resigned from the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday. (Jessica Taylor/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who seems to have spent half of his premiership apologizing for something, is in hot water again. Big time. Two of his most senior cabinet ministers abruptly, stunningly resigned on Tuesday, saying they had lost faith in Johnson’s leadership.

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer, who serves as Britain’s finance minister, and Sajid Javid, the health secretary who oversees Britain’s pandemic response, announced their departures within minutes of each other, making it clear they had lost confidence in Johnson.

Some critics say it’s curtains for this prime minister. But his demise has been predicted many times before, as he has faced one political scandal after another — including over boozy parties held at his Downing Street offices in violation of his government’s own pandemic lockdown rules. Johnson became the first sitting prime minister found to have broken the law, and he still faces an investigation that he lied to Parliament about the festivities.

Tuesday’s resignations came in connection with a different controversy: Johnson’s appointment of Conservative lawmaker Chris Pincher to a key government post, despite earlier accusations of misconduct.

Sunak tweeted, “The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously. I recognise this may be my last ministerial job, but I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning.”

Javid wrote in his resignation letter that although Johnson survived a vote of no-confidence last month, the ruling Conservative Party was no longer demonstrating competence nor acting in the national interest.

“It is clear to me that this situation will not change under your leadership,” he wrote to Johnson, “and you have therefore lost my confidence too.”

Johnson in February named Pincher the deputy chief whip in the House of Commons, a leadership role that saw him charged with keeping Conservative Party members — the raucous “backbenchers” — behind the prime minister and his government’s legislative agenda.

But Pincher last week resigned from that post after confessing in a letter to Johnson that he had “drank far too much” and “embarrassed myself and other people” at a gathering. The British press reported the incident occurred at the Carlton Club, a private watering hole in London, dominated by Conservative Party members.

While intoxicated, Pincher allegedly tried to grope several men, the U.K. press widely reported. Witnesses told the BBC the Pincher was “extremely drunk.”

This is not Pincher’s first time in trouble — and that is what has gotten in Johnson in trouble.

At first, Johnson’s official spokesman said the prime minister did not know of earlier incidents of Pincher’s alleged misconduct. But Johnson’s office backtracked after a damning letter from Simon McDonald, the former head of the diplomatic service, accused Downing Street of misleading the public. McDonald said that a 2019 probe into similar allegations against Pincher upheld the complaint and that Pincher had apologized and promised not to do it again. “Mr. Johnson was briefed in person about the initiation and outcome of the investigation,” McDonald said.

In an apology on Tuesday, Johnson said, “There is no place for anyone in this government who abuses power.” He added: “I bitterly regret the decision not to … intervene.”

Asked by the BBC whether he once joked, “Pincher by name, pincher by nature,” the prime minister didn’t deny using the phrase.

Boris Johnson survives but is weakened by no-confidence vote

Johnson, who has made it clear he’s going nowhere unless shoved, moved swiftly to fill the cabinet vacancies, appointing Education Secretary and YouGov polling founder Nadhim Zahawi as the new chancellor and Downing Street chief of staff Steve Barclay as health secretary. He also tapped Michelle Donelan as the replacement for the education post.

On a day of high drama at Westminster, Solicitor General Alex Chalk also quit, along with at least seven other Conservative lawmakers in more junior roles.

As the night wore on, all eyes were on other cabinet members, to see whether Sunak and Javid would be the only ones to resign — or start a wave. Sunak and Javid are both seen as potential rivals to Johnson.

Johnson sent them personal letters commending Sunak’s “outstanding service” and Javid’s service “with distinction.” He ticked off accomplishments that also reflected well on him.

Among those still very much in Johnson’s corner was Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, who tweeted: “I’m not sure anyone actually doubted this, however, I am 100 percent behind @BorisJohnson the PM who consistently gets all the big decisions right.”

Others didn’t tweet, but British media outlets signaled the remaining top ministers were staying put for now.