LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a potentially deadly political blow on Tuesday when two of his most senior ministers resigned in a seemingly coordinated rebellion against his scandal-ridden leadership.
The two ministers – Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid – tendered their resignations after Mr Johnson apologized for the latest scandal to engulf his government, which involves allegations of sexual misconduct and excessive alcohol consumption by a Conservative Party Legislator.
The sudden departures have opened another crack in Mr Johnson’s government at a time when he is already battling a mutiny among his party’s lawmakers, who are angry after months of embarrassing reports of social gatherings in Downing Street that breached the government’s own coronavirus lockdown rules.
Mr Johnson moved quickly to announce the replacements for Mr Sunak and Mr Javid, signaling that he planned to try to stabilize the government and fight for his job. But clearly the Prime Minister was in greater political peril than at any other time in his tumultuous three-year tenure in Downing Street.
Analysts and some senior Tory lawmakers said the impact of the resignations could shatter any support Mr Johnson had left in the party, and in the hours that followed Alex Chalk, the solicitor general, and several incumbents junior government posts also resigned. Even analysts who were reluctant to write the prime minister’s political obituary said he faced a forbidden path to avoid being ousted.
“I don’t see how he’ll get out of it – it really does look like the end of the road this time,” said Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London. “Javid and Sunak going together punches a much bigger hole in the cabinet than it would have had it been either of them.”
Mr Johnson, a freewheeling journalist-turned-politician, appeared to defy the laws of political gravity, surviving multiple investigations, a criminal police fine and a vote of no confidence among his Conservative Party lawmakers last month. last only – all related to parties held in Downing Street during coronavirus lockdowns.
Because he survived the vote of no confidence, he cannot face another for a year unless party rules are changed. This means cabinet resignations may be the only effective method of pushing him to resign. High-profile resignations crippled some of Mr Johnson’s predecessors, including Margaret Thatcher.
Part of Mr Johnson’s strength had been his Cabinet’s unified support, despite a relentless tide of negative headlines.
Hours after Mr Sunak and Mr Javid resigned, Mr Johnson appointed Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary best known for his aggressive rollout of coronavirus vaccines, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Steve Barclay, his Downing Street chief of staff. , as Health Secretary.
But reshuffling on the fly brings its own set of problems. Mr Barclay had only been recruited in February to clean up Downing Street after the party scandal. Mr Johnson has yet to replace Oliver Dowden, a Conservative Party chairman who resigned after two defeats in a damaging parliamentary election last month.
The losses crystallized fears among many Tories that Mr Johnson had lost touch as the voters’ champion, a reputation he cemented in the party’s landslide victory in 2019 and which had helped him overcome all kinds of scandals.
Yet it was the most recent outcry over Mr Johnson’s promotion of a Tory lawmaker, Chris Pincher, that appeared to sway Mr Sunak and Mr Javid.
Last week, Mr Pincher resigned as deputy chief party whip after admitting to being drunk at a private club in London where he was said to have groped two men. He was suspended from the party while the charges were investigated, but he did not resign as an MP.
On Tuesday, Downing Street admitted that Mr Johnson had been told of previous charges against Mr Pincher in 2019 – which Mr Johnson’s office initially denied. In what has become a familiar ritual in British politics, the Prime Minister apologized to the BBC for bringing up Mr Pincher.
“In hindsight, it’s not the right thing to do,” Mr Johnson said, “and I apologize to everyone who was hit hard by it.”
If the prime minister calculated that the act of contrition would be enough to keep wayward ministers and lawmakers in check, he was wrong. Mr Sunak, who as chancellor held a post traditionally considered the second most powerful in government, submitted a frankly critical resignation letter.
“The public rightly expects government to be run properly, competently and seriously,” Sunak wrote. “I recognize that this may be my last ministerial post, but I believe these standards are worth upholding, and that is why I am stepping down.”
Mr Javid, who had preceded Mr Sunak as Chancellor before being expelled and then appointed by Mr Johnson as Health Secretary, wrote: “It is with immense regret that I must tell you that I can no longer, in all good conscience. , continue to serve in this government. I am instinctively a team player, but Britons also rightly expect integrity from their government.
Both men are major party figures, with their own potential leadership aspirations, although Mr Sunak’s star has faded in recent months due to questions over his wealthy wife’s tax status in Britain .
One of the reasons cabinet support is important to Mr Johnson is that it has prevented a major figure from emerging as a rival for him. Whether Mr Sunak or Mr Javid will try to take on the role is an open question – as is whether other ambitious ministers will follow suit.
On Tuesday evening, it emerged that several top ministers were staying, including Foreign Secretary Liz Truss; Defense Secretary Ben Wallace; and Michael Gove, a former rival of Mr Johnson who holds a key cabinet portfolio overseeing economic policy to “level out” troubled areas.
Mr Johnson managed to fend off the no-confidence vote largely because there were no obvious successors for him, but it clearly showed his vulnerability: more than 40% of his party’s lawmakers voted for him. oust. A collapsing cabinet immediately sets the stage for several potential successors. And party officials are already debating whether to change the rules to call another confidence vote sooner than next June.
The outcry over the circumstances of Mr Pincher’s appointment – and Downing Street’s changing narrative about them – is just the latest in a series of scandals surrounding Mr Johnson. Earlier this year he was fined by police for breaking lockdown rules in Downing Street, where members of his staff held several boozy parties in breach of the pandemic ban.
Questions have also been raised over Mr Johnson’s expensive renovation of his Downing Street flat, initially funded by a Conservative Party donor. The prime minister also strongly defended a Tory lawmaker, Owen Paterson, for breaking lobbying rules, only to backtrack and apologise.
As the latest drama unfolded on Tuesday night, some Tory lawmakers made it clear they believed there should be no coming back for Mr Johnson.
“I voted against Boris Johnson in the recent confidence vote, and earlier today reiterated my concerns,” Laurence Robertson, a veteran Conservative lawmaker, wrote in a post on Twitter. “The resignations of cabinet ministers show that others agree that the problems of the past few months have become a distraction from the challenges facing the country. The Prime Minister must now step down.
Mark Harper, a former chief whip, in his own Twitter post also referred to the resignations of Mr Sunak and Mr Javid. “Honourable decisions made by honorable men,” he said. “The Conservative Party still has so much to offer our country. It’s time for a fresh start.
Julian Knight, another Tory MP, wrote in a post on Twitter that with politicians like Mr Javid and Mr Sunak “saying enough is enough then I fear the dice are cast. It is time for the party to take a new direction.
Megan Specia contributed report.