LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was fighting for his political life on Wednesday amid a historic exodus of ministers and aides from his government and pressure from longtime allies for him to step down.
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. 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.”
Conservative lawmaker Jonathan Djanogly urged his colleagues to give Johnson a hard shove. In a tweet he wrote, “values and ethics do really matter and Britain deserves better.”
The majority of the British public think Johnson should throw in the towel. A YouGov poll published on Tuesday found that 69 percent of Britons said Johnson should resign — including a majority of Conservative voters (54 percent).
Only 18 percent of the British public say Johnson should stay.
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.
To trigger a vote, 54 Conservative lawmakers — or 15 percent of the parliamentary party — would then have to submit letters of no confidence. (Unless those rules are changed, too.)
Analysts have said the party may want a new leader in place before its annual conference in the fall — someone who can help them win the next general election.
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.
There is a tradition in British politics of sending ministers out in the morning to do the broadcast media rounds, to make the government’s case on issues. It’s normally both a duty and an honor. It’s how politicians can make names for themselves. But many ministers are indicating that they are done defending this government.
Lawmaker Jo Churchill resigned as a junior minister saying that “recent events have shown integrity, competence and judgment are all essential to the role of Prime Minister, while a jocular self-serving approach is bound to have its limitations.”
Ford said that while Johnson might continue to limp along, the prime minister would be unlikely to survive another no-confidence vote — next week or months from now.
“I think it would take something close to a biblical miracle,” Ford said. “Nothing can be ruled out with the luckiest politician in British politics, but it would take something extraordinary.”