Boris Johnson on Wednesday refused to quit as British prime minister, despite a slew of resignations from his scandal-hit government, piling on pressure as he faced a grilling from angry MPs.
The 58-year-old leader’s grip on power appears to be slipping following 10 short minutes on Tuesday night, when Rishi Sunak resigned as finance minister and Sajid Javid quit as health secretary.
Both said they could no longer tolerate the culture of scandal that has stalked Johnson for months, including lockdown lawbreaking in Downing Street that enraged the public.
At the weekly session of Prime Minister’s Questions in parliament, MPs from all sides rounded on Johnson.
But brushing off calls to resign, he told MPs: “Frankly, the job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances when you have been handed a colossal mandate is to keep going and that’s what I’m going to do.”
After the session, Javid urged other ministers to resign. “The problem starts at the top, and I believe that is not going to change,” he said.
“And that means that it is for those of us in that position — who have responsibility — to make that change.”
Cries of “bye Boris” echoed around the chamber at the end of his speech.
Sunak and Javid’s departure triggered an avalanche of resignations from more than a dozen junior ministers and aides.
Johnson still has to navigate an hours-long grilling from the chairs of the House of Commons’ most powerful committees, including some of his most virulent critics in the Tory ranks.
Sunak and Javid quit just minutes after Johnson apologised for appointing a senior Conservative, who quit his post last week after he was accused of drunkenly groping two men.
Former education secretary Nadhim Zahawi was immediately handed the finance brief and acknowledged the uphill task ahead.
“You don’t go into this job to have an easy life,” Zahawi told Sky News.
– Challenge –
Days of shifting explanations had followed the resignation of deputy chief whip Chris Pincher. Downing Street at first denied Johnson knew of prior allegations against Pincher when appointing him in February.
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.
Minister for children and families Will Quince quit early Wednesday, saying he was given the inaccurate information before having to defend the government in a round of media interviews on Monday.
The Pincher affair was the “icing on the cake” for Sunak and Javid, Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, a strident Johnson critic, told Sky News.
“I and a lot of the party now are determined that he will be gone by the summer recess” starting on July 22.
Other senior cabinet ministers, including Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, still back Johnson but many were wondering how long that may last.
Johnson only narrowly survived a no-confidence vote among Conservative MPs a month ago, which ordinarily would mean he could not be challenged again for another year.
But the influential “1922 Committee” of non-ministerial Tory MPs is reportedly seeking to change the rules, with its executive committee meeting later Wednesday.
– ‘Local difficulties’ –
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a doggedly loyal cabinet ally and Johnson’s “minister for Brexit opportunities” dismissed the resignations as “little local difficulties”.
Sunak’s departure in particular, in the middle of policy differences over a cost-of-living crisis sweeping Britain, is dismal news for Johnson.
The prime minister, who received a police fine for the so-called “Partygate” affair, faces a parliamentary probe into whether he lied to MPs about the revelations.
Pincher’s departure from the whips’ office — charged with enforcing party discipline and standards — marked yet another allegation of sexual misconduct by Tories in recent months, recalling the “sleaze” that dogged John Major’s government in the 1990s.
Conservative MP Neil Parish resigned in April after he was caught watching pornography on his mobile phone in the House of Commons.
That prompted a by-election in his previously safe seat, which the party went on to lose in a historic victory for the opposition Liberal Democrats.
Labour, the main opposition party, defeated the Conservatives in another by-election in northern England on the same day, prompted by the conviction of its Tory MP for sexual assault.