British television network ITV reported on Wednesday that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was absolutely defiant and was not going to resign, telling cabinet colleagues that they faced the choice between a summer focused on the economy or a leadership contest.
Johnson rejected demands that he step down during a stormy session of the British House of Commons in the wake of a furor over his handling of sexual misconduct allegations against a senior official.
Later in the day, a delegation of some of his most trusted allies in cabinet paid a visit to Johnson at Downing Street to urge him to go, Britain’s Press Association reported.
But the prime minister rejected suggestions he should seek a “dignified exit” and opted to fight for his political future, citing “hugely important issues facing the country,” according to the news agency. It cited a source close to the prime minister as saying he told his colleagues there would be “chaos” if he quit.
Johnson and new Chancellor of the Exchequer Nadhim Zahawi will set out a new joint plan for the economy on Thursday, Sky News reported, citing a close aide of the British leader.
But lawmakers continued to part ways with Johnson’s government Wednesday evening. Johnson sacked senior minister Michael Gove and, later, Secretary of State for Wales Simon Hart stepped down.
In a letter to Johnson, Hart said, “Colleagues have done their upmost in private and public to help you turn the ship around … l feel we have passed the point where this is possible.”
On Wednesday night, the attorney general for England and Wales, Suella Braverman, called on Johnson to resign and became the first cabinet minister to say they would run to replace him in any Conservative Party leadership contest.
“I do think the time has come for the prime minister to step down,” Braverman said on ITV, adding she did not want to resign from her post.
‘Sinking ship fleeing the rat’
Earlier Wednesday, members of the opposition Labour Party showered Johnson with shouts of “Go! Go!” during the weekly ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, as critics argued the leader’s days were numbered.
Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, said cabinet ministers who had defended Johnson through many scandals lacked integrity.
“Isn’t it the first recorded case of the sinking ship fleeing the rat?” he asked.
But more damningly, members of Johnson’s own Conservative Party — wearied by the many scandals he has faced — also challenged their leader, with one asking whether there was anything that might prompt him to resign.
“Frankly, the job of the prime minister in difficult circumstances, when he’s been handed a colossal mandate, is to keep going,” Johnson replied, with the bluster he has used to fend off critics throughout nearly three years in office. “And that’s what I’m going to do.”
Conservatives offer little support
His fellow Conservatives listened quietly, offering little support.
Johnson is known for his ability to wiggle out of tight spots, managing to remain in power despite suggestions that he was too close to party donors, protected supporters from bullying and corruption allegations, and misled Parliament about parties in government offices that broke COVID-19 lockdown rules.
He hung on even when 41 per cent of Conservative lawmakers voted to oust him in a no-confidence vote last month and formerly loyal lieutenants urged him to quit.
Under party rules, another no-confidence vote cannot be held for another 11 months, but party members can change the rules. The 1922 Committee, a small but influential group of Conservative lawmakers, could decide as early as Monday whether to do that.
‘Besmirching our democracy’
In holding on to his office, Johnson is attempting to defy the mathematics of parliamentary government and the traditions of British politics. It is rare for a prime minister to cling to power in the face of this much pressure from his Cabinet colleagues.
“He is now besmirching our democracy, and if he doesn’t do the right thing and go of his own accord, then he’ll be dragged out,” Scottish National Party leader Ian Blackford told the BBC.
Many of his fellow Conservatives are concerned that Johnson no longer has the moral authority to govern at a time when difficult decisions are needed to address soaring food and energy prices, rising COVID-19 infections and the war in Ukraine. Others worry that a leader renowned for his ability to win elections may now be a liability at the ballot box.
Paul Drexler, chair of the International Chamber of Commerce, warned that soaring food and energy prices are reaching crisis proportions and need to be addressed by a leader who isn’t distracted.
“I would say the most important thing to do is to feed people who are hungry,” he told the BBC. “I mean, that is a burning platform at the moment. The poorest in our society are going to be starving to death the second half of this year. That needs to be addressed.”
Former health secretary Sajid Javid, who helped trigger the current crisis when he resigned Tuesday night, captured the mood of many lawmakers when he said Johnson’s actions threatened to undermine the integrity of the Conservative Party and the British government.
“At some point we have to conclude that enough is enough,” he told fellow lawmakers. “I believe that point is now.”
Months of discontent over Johnson’s judgment and ethics within the governing Conservative Party erupted with the resignations of Javid and Rishi Sunak, who was chancellor of the exchequer, within minutes of each other on Tuesday evening.
The two heavyweights of the cabinet were responsible for tackling two of the biggest issues facing Britain: the cost-of-living crisis and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In a scathing letter, Sunak said that “the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously. I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning.”
Nearly 40 resignations
The resignations of some 40 junior ministers and ministerial aides followed on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell said late Tuesday that Johnson’s time was finally up.
“It’s a bit like the death of Rasputin. He’s been poisoned, stabbed, he’s been shot, his body’s been dumped in a freezing river and still he lives,” he told the BBC. “But this is an abnormal prime minister, a brilliantly charismatic, very funny, very amusing, big, big character. But I’m afraid he has neither the character nor the temperament to be our prime minister.”
The final straw for Sunak and Javid was the prime minister’s shifting explanations about his handling of sexual misconduct allegations against a senior Conservative lawmaker.
Last week, Chris Pincher resigned as Conservative deputy chief whip after complaints he groped two men at a private club. That triggered a series of reports about past allegations levelled against Pincher and questions about what Johnson knew when he tapped Pincher for a senior job enforcing party discipline.
Johnson’s office initially said he wasn’t aware of the previous accusations when he promoted Pincher in February. By Monday, a spokesperson said Johnson did know of the allegations — but they were “either resolved or did not progress to a formal complaint.”
When a former top civil servant in the Foreign Office contradicted that, saying Johnson was briefed about a 2019 allegation that resulted in a formal complaint, Johnson’s office said the prime minister had forgotten about a briefing on the issue.