Cornered Boris on the brink as cabinet loses trust in PM

Published on Jul 07, 2022 12:30 AM IST

By the time of going to print, at least 38 members of the government — including junior ministers and senior officials -- had left the Johnson administration, and a delegation at 10 Downing Street was telling him that his time was up, BBC, Sky News and other news outlets reported.

Cornered Boris on the brink as cabinet loses trust in PM(AP)
Cornered Boris on the brink as cabinet loses trust in PM(AP)
Agencies |

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday battled to remain in office, shrugging off calls for his resignation after two top ministers, and a slew of officials said they could no longer serve under his scandal-plagued leadership.

By the time of going to print, at least 38 members of the government — including junior ministers and senior officials -- had left the Johnson administration, and a delegation at 10 Downing Street was telling him that his time was up, BBC, Sky News and other news outlets reported. The delegation, which included transport secretary Grant Shapps and long-time loyalist Brandon Lewis, had waited for his return from a two-hour grilling by a parliamentary committee.

The 58-year-old leader’s grip on power started slipping on Tuesday night, when Sajid Javid quit as health secretary, followed soon after by the resignation of Rishi Sunak as chancellor of the exchequer, or finance minister. Both said they could no longer tolerate the culture of scandal that has dogged Johnson for months, including lockdown lawbreaking in Downing Street, and the appointment of a senior official with a history of sexual predatory behaviour.

Also read: ‘I will not resign,’ says UK PM Boris Johnson | List of Tory MPs who quit govt

But, in the House of Commons, and at a question and answer session at a parliamentary committee, Johnson defiantly vowed to get on with the job. “I’m not going to give a running commentary on political events,” he told the committee when asked about the cabinet delegation. “What we need is stable government, loving each other as Conservatives, getting on with our priorities, that is what we need to do.”

On questions about his whether it was likely that he would quit, Joshnson said: “Frankly … the job of the prime minister in difficult circumstances, when he’s been handed a colossal mandate, is to keep going. And that’s what I’m going to do.” Asked to confirm he would not seek to call an election rather than resign if he lost a vote of confidence, Johnson said, “I am not going to step down and the last thing this country needs, frankly, is an election.”

Earlier, in parliament, 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 his days were numbered following his poor handling of sexual misconduct allegations against a senior official. Cries of “bye, Boris” echoed around the chamber at the end of his speech. 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.

Most Tories were conspicuously silent when Johnson attacked the Labour opposition at prime minister’s questions. Some shook their heads.

At one point, he was asked a pointed question in the House of Commons by former Tory minister Tim Loughton: “Does the prime minister think there are any circumstances in which he should resign?” To which, Johnson replied with bluster: “The job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances when he’s been handed a colossal mandate is to keep going...That’s what I’m going to do.” But his slide continued through the day. At the appearance before the chairs of select committees, a relatively sedate first half rapidly descended into questions about Johnson’s behaviour and his views on ethical standards in politics. At one point, he was asked if he was suffering memory loss when he could not answer a question -- a reference to his excuse for appointing someone who had faced accusations of sexual misconduct.

“I suspect we will have to drag him kicking and screaming from Downing Street,” one Conservative lawmaker told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But if we have to do it that way then we will.”

A former journalist and London mayor who became the face of Britain’s departure from the European Union, Johnson’s landslide 2019 election win soon gave way to a combative and often chaotic approach to governing. The latest scandal saw Johnson apologising for appointing lawmaker Chris Pincher as deputy chief whip, a role involved in party welfare and discipline, even after being briefed that he had been the subject of complaints about sexual misconduct.

Also read: UK PM Boris Johnson vows to stay in office after top ministers quit

Downing Street’s narrative changed several times over what the prime minister knew of Pincher’s past behaviour -- who was forced to resign -- and when he knew it. His spokesman blamed a lapse in Johnson’s memory. But by Tuesday, that defence had collapsed after a former top civil servant said Johnson, as foreign minister, was told in 2019 about another incident involving his ally.

It was all too much for ministers who have been sent out to defend the government’s position in radio and TV interviews, only to find the story changed within a few hours.

Sunak and Javid resigned on Tuesday, followed by a slew of junior ministers on Wednesday, who quit citing Johnson’s lack of judgment, standards, and an inability to tell the truth.

With the tide of resignations rising to 38, some questioned whether Johnson could fill those vacancies at a time when the government needs to tackle a cost-of-living crisis and support an economy heading for a slowdown, possibly a recession.

But 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, that he protected supporters from bullying and corruption allegations, and that he misled Parliament about parties in government offices that broke Covid-19 lockdown rules.

He hung on even when 41% of Conservative lawmakers voted to oust him in a no-confidence vote last month and formerly loyal lieutenants urged him to quit. As the rules stand, he cannot face another such vote for 12 months.

The so-called 1922 Committee decided on Wednesday it would hold an election to its executive on Monday, before deciding whether to change the rules to bring forward a confidence vote in Johnson, three Conservative lawmakers told Reuters, which would mean that a new confidence vote in Johnson will not be brought by his lawmakers until at least next week.

Bim Afolami, who quit as Conservative Party vice chairman on Tuesday, said he had been willing to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt — until the Pincher affair.

Paul Drechsler, chair of the International Chamber of Commerce in Britain, said change is needed at the top if the government is going to address a growing economic crisis.

“I would say the most important thing to do is to feed people who are hungry,’’ he told the BBC. “The poorest in our society are going to be starving to death the second half of this year. That needs to be addressed.”

Javid 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.

Also read: Boris Johnson and the longest goodbye

“At some point we have to conclude that enough is enough,” he told fellow lawmakers. “I believe that point is now.”

In a scathing letter, Sunak said: “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.”

Mindful of the need to shore up confidence, Johnson quickly replaced the ministers, promoting Nadhim Zahawi from the education department to treasury chief and installing his chief of staff, Steve Barclay, as health secretary.

But the resignations of more than 30 junior ministers and ministerial aides followed Tuesday and Wednesday.

Other senior cabinet ministers, including Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, still publicly back Johnson.

But as the resignations pile up, many wonder how long that may last.

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