Boris Johnson is desperately clinging to power after suffering an avalanche of resignations from his government unprecedented in recent British political history.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng were among senior figures to tell Johnson on Wednesday that his time was up as more than 40 ministers and aides followed the lead of Finance Minister Rishi Sunak and Health Minister Sajid Javid the day before quitting. The exodus continued early Thursday with the resignations of Northern Ireland Minister Brandon Lewis and Finance Minister Helen Whately.
For most of the day, Johnson’s government was in danger of imploding as his authority waned. But after a meeting of his inner circle, the wounded British Prime Minister went on the offensive, sacking Michael Gove – one of the Cabinet’s remaining big hitters – in what one official described as revenge for his attempt to remove the Prime Minister and a past act of the treason.
The move sent shockwaves through Westminster on an already extraordinary day. The two men have history; Johnson’s bid for power after the 2016 Brexit referendum collapsed at the last minute when his running mate withdrew his support for leaving the European Union.
However, Gove was responsible for implementing one of Johnson’s signature policies to ‘level’ left-behind areas of the UK, many of which were former constituencies in Labor’s ‘Red Wall’ heartland, which switched to Johnson’s Tories in 2019.
Removing him looks more like a scorched-earth approach than sound policy as his Tories are openly rebelling against him and more resignations are sure to come. Wales’ Foreign Secretary Simon Hart and Health Secretary Edward Argar resigned late Wednesday after Johnson’s plan to go ahead was reported. Hart said it was too late to “turn the ship”.
Proper and responsible government is based on honesty, integrity and mutual respect – it is a matter of my deep personal regret that I have to leave government as I no longer believe these values are upheld.
I submitted my letter of resignation to the Prime Minister. pic.twitter.com/EG6u52BdDc
— Brandon Lewis (@BrandonLewis) July 7, 2022
“It’s a big gamble for Johnson because Gove has the support of a large section of the Parliament party and he also represents the key department that is politically sensitive to sticking with the Red Wall,” said Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary. University of London. “But I doubt this is about politics; it’s more about revenge for 2016.”
And even as Johnson tries to fight back, another danger looms: the rebel Tories are determined to hold another vote on his leadership as early as next week. After narrowly failing to oust him last month, they’re confident they have the numbers to finish the job this time.
The math is certainly not in Johnson’s favor. If 32 more of his MPs had voted against him in June, his position as prime minister would have ended. The number of resignations in the last 24 hours already exceeds that.
In Parliament, however, Johnson made it clear he had no intention of resigning, telling lawmakers he viewed his power mandate as stemming from voters who gave him a resounding victory in the 2019 general election.
“Frankly, Mr Speaker, the job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances, when he’s been given a colossal mandate, is to move on, and that’s what I will do,” Johnson said.
A Johnson ally said the PM would rather be dragged out of Downing Street and that Brexit Opportunities Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries were among those who told him to stay. Johnson sees a Tory leadership contest would mean chaos at a critical time.
Instead, Johnson is trying to portray the recent turmoil as yet another restart by his administration to try to win back support. Newly appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer Nadhim Zahawi is preparing a speech promising tax cuts and deregulation, the ally said.
“Are for a Fight”
“He’s ready for a fight,” James Duddridge, one of Johnson’s parliamentary private secretaries, told Sky News. “He will make some changes.”
But the scale of the Tory unrest makes surviving a major challenge. During his resignation speech in the House of Commons, Javid drew no punches over problems he said start at the top of the Tory party.
“We have reason to question the truth and integrity of what we have all been told,” he said. “At some point we have to realize that enough is enough.”
Johnson can no longer rely on some of his trusted allies, including Shapps, whom the prime minister often relies on to put out fires in his government and handle sensitive media appearances. Late on Wednesday, another loyalist, Attorney General Suella Braverman, told ITV program Peston that the Prime Minister should resign. She went on to say that she would pass any leadership competition.
holes to fill
The sheer volume of resignations leaves vacancies that Johnson will struggle to fill from the back benches, as more than 40% of his MPs voted against him in last month’s confidence vote and many more have changed their minds.
Boris Johnson resignations July 5-6
- Cabinet: Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid, Simon Hart, Brandon Lewis
- Government Minister: 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, Rachael Maclean, Mike Freer, Edward Argar, Helen Whateley
- 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, Mark Logan, Mark Fletcher, Sara Britcliffe, Ruth Edwards, Peter Gibson, James Sunderland , Jacob Young, James Daly, Danny Kruger
- Vice President of the Conservative Party: I would be Afolami
- Trade Envoy: Theo Clarke, Andrew Murrison, David Duguid, David Mundell
That vote theoretically rendered him immune to another challenge from his MPs for a year, but the Tories’ powerful 1922 committee that organizes such elections could change its rules to allow another one sooner.
Earlier on Wednesday, Johnson got at least some breathing space when the committee decided not to change its rules immediately, leaving the decision to a new executive to be elected on Monday.
The new executive will then meet on Tuesday to decide whether to change the regulations – and a vote is likely next week. Johnson has vowed to fight any leadership challenge, and his press secretary told reporters he also expects a win.
That would be a remarkable result, even for the man known in British political circles as the ‘greased pig’ for his ability to dodge trouble.
Johnson’s position has been in jeopardy for months amid a string of scandals including “Partygate” in which he became the first sitting prime minister to be fined for breaking the law while in office.
But Tory’s anger mounted last week when it emerged that the PM had promoted an MP, Chris Pincher, to a senior government position in February despite being aware of a formal complaint of improper conduct in 2019.
Pincher resigned last week amid similar, fresh allegations, and Johnson’s failure to clarify quickly enough what he knew about Pincher’s behavior and when drew criticism from across the party, with Tories openly questioning the honesty and integrity of the PM and his team .
“The tightrope walk between loyalty and integrity has become impossible,” Javid said.