Boris Johnson has resigned. This is something everyone had been expecting this week — but the Prime Minister had refused to go. Until Thursday (July 7).
On Thursday, the BBC quoted Tory MP Andrew Mitchell as saying about Johnson: “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.”
But the Prime Minister has been finally pushed out of the office he insisted on clinging to as his government, battered by endless scandals and crises for a year, collapsed around him over the last couple of days.
How and from where did the final push come?
Boris Johnson had become virtually a Prime Minister without a government.
There is the inescapable fact of mass desertion of the Prime Minister. British media were running lists of ministerial resignations, and The Guardian was reporting that as of 9 am on Thursday (1.30 pm in India), 27 ministers — five at the cabinet level and 22 below cabinet level — had put in their papers.
In addition, Johnson had sacked levelling up secretary Michael Gove on Wednesday for disloyalty, hours after Gove met Johnson and asked him to leave office. And environment secretary Rebecca Pow had announced her resignation on Twitter around 2.45 pm India time.
Besides these 29 ministers, dozens of parliamentary private secretaries (PPSs) had exited as well, taking the number of resigning ministers and government aides to more than 50. While, as The Guardian noted, the PPS resignations are “far less important” because “government can function without PPSs, but not without ministers”, the numbers do add up.
By Thursday afternoon, Johnson, who had made a characteristically fiesty brazening-out speech in the House of Commons on Wednesday, appeared to be in real danger of being reduced to a Prime Minister without a government.
Earlier, after Larry, the famous cat of No. 10 Downing Street, made an appearance outside the British Prime Minister’s residence, reporters staking out the door jocularly asked the feline whether he too was intending to leave.
There was the blunt assertion by minister after minister of the loss of faith in Johnson’s leadership.
It began with Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Rishi Sunak and health and social care secretary Sajid Javid who resigned within minutes of each other on Tuesday (July 5) — and the following morning Javid told Parliament that “at some point, we have to conclude that enough is enough”.
“I believe that point is now,” Javid said, and added that he believed “the problem starts at the top”.
Sunak, who like Javid, is seen as a potential replacement for Johnson, said in his resignation letter that “the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously”, and despite knowing that he may well end up never being minister again, “I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning”.
And in an extraordinary development on July 7, Nadhim Zahawi, whom Johnson made Chancellor barely 48 hours ago, posted on Twitter: “Prime Minister: this is not sustainable and it will only get worse: for you, for the Conservative Party and most importantly of all the country. You must do the right thing and go now.”
The Conservative Party had finally decided that the Prime Minister is a liability.
In his resignation speech outside No. 10, Johnson was candid in admitting that he had failed to persuade his party colleagues that it would be “eccentric” to change the leader at the present moment.
The BBC was reporting earlier on Thursday that Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, had met Johnson and informed him that he had lost the confidence of the party.
There is a clear electoral calculation involved. Even before the Chris Pincher scandal exploded on the government, opinion polls in Britain showed the Conservatives trailing behind Labour. The number of Tory MPs who are convinced that Johnson must be got rid of to preempt the damage to the party has now reached critical mass.
On Wednesday, Conservative backbenchers in the Commons were literally laughing at the Prime Minister as he sought to defend himself against lacerating criticism and vowed to “keep going”, and jeered him with shouts of “Bye, Boris” as he left the House by a side door.
The situation now is significantly worse for the Prime Minister compared to a month ago, when he was able to secure enough votes to survive a no-confidence motion brought against him by a large group in the Tory party. While he got majority support — 211 of the 359 MPs — as many as 148 MPs (more than 40 per cent) voted against, denting Johnson’s legitimacy.
After that though, the Conservatives suffered hugely damaging defeats in by-elections for two parliamentary districts, Wakefield, and Tiverton and Honiton. The latter defeat was especially significant because it overturned the Conservative Party’s 24,000 majority in the district, the biggest ever majority to be overturned in a by-election, according to The Guardian.
On June 24, the co-chairman of the party resigned, saying “We cannot carry on with business as usual” and that “somebody must take responsibility”. The elections to both seats were brought on by the resignations of Tory lawmakers who were facing sex scandals — one of them had to quit after being convicted of sexually assaulting a teenage boy, and another had been caught watching porn in Parliament.
The Pincher scandal — which showed that the Prime Minister had promoted a Conservative MP to deputy chief whip in the Commons despite being aware that he had a history of sexual misconduct — turned out to be the last straw that broke the government’s back.