British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was dealt a huge and sudden blow on Tuesday when two of his top ministers announced their resignations, saying they could no longer work for a government mired in scandal.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced their decisions to quit within minutes of each other on Tuesday evening, plunging Johnson’s troubled administration into renewed chaos and prompting a wave of other junior ministers and officials to resign.
Some called on Johnson himself to step down, and there was speculation that if he refused to go, members of his own party would launch a formal effort to unseat him – less than a month after the last one failed.
The immediate cause of the resignations was the bungled handling of a recent controversy, but came against the backdrop of months of turmoil in which Johnson was fined by police for breaking Covid-19 lockdown rules.
“The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously,” Sunak said in his resignation letter, posted to Twitter. “I recognise this may be my last ministerial job, but I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning.”
“I am sad to be leaving Government but I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that we cannot continue like this,” Sunak added.
Javid wrote that “it has been an enormous privilege to serve in this role, but I regret that I can no longer continue in good conscience.” Javid added that the vote of confidence in the prime minister last month “was a moment for humility, grip and new direction.”
“I regret to say, however, that it is clear to me that this situation will not change under your leadership – and you have therefore lost my confidence too,” Javid wrote.
Other ministers and officials occupying more junior posts in the government quit in the hours that followed, with more resignations continuing on Wednesday morning. Johnson moved to shore up his position, replacing his two Cabinet ministers late on Tuesday.
Scandal after scandal
The latest crisis blew up out of Downing Street’s handling of last week’s resignation of deputy chief whip Chris Pincher, who stepped down from his post last Thursday amid allegations he had groped two guests at a private dinner the night before.
While he did not admit the allegations directly, Pincher said in a letter to Johnson that “last night I drank far too much” and “embarrassed myself and other people.”
Downing Street had struggled to explain why Pincher was in government in the first place, amid a wave of revelations about his previous alleged conduct, denying Johnson knew anything specific about the allegations.
On Tuesday, it emerged that a complaint had been made against Pincher in the Foreign Office about three years ago and that Johnson was briefed on what happened.
Minutes before Sunak and Javid announced their resignations, Johnson acknowledged it “was a mistake” to appoint Pincher to his government.
“I got this complaint. It was something that was only raised with me very cursory, but I wish that we had acted on it and that he had not continued in government because he then went on, I’m afraid, to behave, as far as we can see – according to the allegations that we have – very, very badly,” Johnson said in a broadcast interview.
UK opposition leader Keir Starmer said it was “clear” that the government was “collapsing.”
“Tory cabinet ministers have known all along who this Prime Minister is. They have been his cheerleaders throughout this sorry saga. Backing him when he broke the law. Backing him when he lied repeatedly. Backing him when he mocked the sacrifices of the British people,” the Labour Party leader said in a statement released after the two resignations.
For months Johnson has been facing a barrage of criticism over his conduct and that of his government, including illegal, lockdown-breaking parties thrown in his Downing Street offices for which he and others were fined.
Johnson has faced numerous other scandals that have hit his standing in the polls – despite his 80-seat landslide victory just two-and-a-half years ago. These include accusations of using donor money inappropriately to pay for a refurbishment of his Downing Street home and whipping MPs to protect a colleague who had breached lobbying rules.
Last month, he survived a confidence vote, but the final count of his lawmakers who rebelled against him was higher than his supporters expected: 41% of his own parliamentary party refused to back him.
But while he managed to win the confidence vote, he suffered a further blow late last month when his party lost two parliamentary by-elections in a single night, raising new questions about his leadership.
According to an Ipsos UK survey conducted between 22 and 29 June, Johnson’s Conservative Party, by some measures, is at its lowest level recorded in more than a decade. Just 21% of respondents said it is “fit to govern” – the lowest number for either the Conservatives or Labour since Ipsos started tracking this metric in 2011.
The chaos in Westminster had ripple effects in the financial markets, pushing the value of the British pound against the dollar to its lowest in more than two years.
Downing Street did not hesitate filling the vacant roles. Nadhim Zahawi, who was previously Secretary of State for Education, was appointed as Chancellor, while Downing Street Chief of Staff Steve Barclay became the new Health Secretary. Michelle Donelan replaced Zahawi as Education Secretary.
The resignation of the two Cabinet ministers prompted more junior figures to follow. Conservative party vice chair Bim Afolami announced his decision to quit live on television. During an interview with Tom Newton Dunn on Talk TV, Afolami said: “I just don’t think the Prime Minister any longer has my support… the support of the party or indeed the country anymore.”
Alex Chalk, who served as the Solicitor General for Englnad and Wales, one of the government’s most senior law officers, also quit, saying in his resignation letter that it was time “for fresh leadership.”
“To be in government is to accept the duty to argue for difficult or even unpopular policy positions where that serves the broader national interest. But it cannot extend to defending the indefensible,” Chalk said.
The Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Morocco, Andrew Murrison, also stepped down, blasting the “rolling chaos of the last six months” and saying that Boris Johnson’s “position has become unrecoverable.”
At least half a dozen other junior-ranking government officials also announced resignations later on Tuesday, and more quit on Wednesday morning.
Allies of the Prime Minister insisted he would fight on. But, adding to the sense of chaos, two more ministers resigned just as Zahawi was giving an interview to BBC Radio 4’s Today program, regarded as the most high-profile of morning broadcast shows. As Zahawi responded to being told of the first resignation, the presenter, Nick Robinson, interrupted him to tell him of another.
CNN’s Luke McGee, Sarah Dean, Luke Henderson, Lauren Kent, Dan Wright, Jorge Engels and Maija Ehlinger contributed reporting.