Two ministers gone, members of parliament in open rebellion – and now a difficult appointment in parliament: the bad news for the British prime minister does not stop. But Johnson fights.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party is in turmoil following the resignation of two key ministers.
The Tories are in an “open war”, commented the broadcaster Sky News on Wednesday night. The BBC quoted an anonymous MP who claims to have even heard the “smell of death” in London’s Westminster precinct. “Conservative MPs have finally lost patience with their leader, who is becoming a contemptible figure for voters more and more quickly,” said political scientist Mark Garnett from the University of Lancaster to the German Press Agency in London.
Finance Minister Rishi Sunak, long considered Johnson’s possible successor, and Health Minister Sajid Javid stressed in their resignation letters that they had lost confidence in the prime minister. And several MPs also resigned from government offices – these are not crucial posts, but the signal is devastating, as analysts emphasized. Above all, the resignation of Jonathan Gullis, who was previously considered an ultra-loyal supporter of the prime minister, shows that the signs are pointing to a storm.
Johnson faces questions from MPs
Arguably the worst day of Johnson’s tenure could have been just a prelude to more. Because on Wednesday, the prime minister traditionally has to answer questions from MPs in the lower house at noon – and then to the Liaison Committee, a parliamentary committee, in the afternoon. The members often outbid each other with uncomfortable questions, they “grill” the prime minister. One topic on the agenda: integrity.
This is where Johnson comes full circle. More and more of his party friends are denying this integrity. The prime minister ridiculed the Tories and ran them down – that’s how the criticism of the ever-growing number of party rebels can be summed up. MP Nicola Richards said she could no longer work for the government under the current circumstances when she resigned as Parliamentary Private Secretary for the Minister for Transport. “The focus is distorted by poor judgment, which I don’t want to be associated with.”
Scandal involving Johnson’s fellow party member Chris Pincher
The latest scandal involving Johnson’s fellow party member Chris Pincher proved to be the last straw. The question is whether the prime minister knew of sexual harassment allegations against Pincher when he promoted him to a key parliamentary group post in February. Yes, Johnson eventually had to concede. He apologized – but he couldn’t stop the wave of resignations. He is even met with scorn from the party. “I can’t believe he’s being brought down by a sex scandal he’s not involved in,” the New Statesman magazine quoted a Tory as saying. The Prime Minister is said to have had several extramarital affairs.
But Johnson wouldn’t be Johnson if he backed down. The 58-year-old quickly made it clear that he would fight. Within a few hours, the head of government appointed two loyal followers to succeed the resigning ministers: Chief of Staff Steve Barclay will become Health Minister, Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi will move to the important Ministry of Finance and will in turn be replaced by his Secretary of State Michelle Donelan.
Johnson’s political will to survive
Johnson is known for his political will to survive. He has already survived several serious scandals, most recently the “Partygate” affair about illegal lockdown celebrations at the government seat on Downing Street. Even a fine that made him the first sitting prime minister proven to break the law didn’t topple Johnson.
“It’s a bit like the death of Rasputin,” Tory MP Andrew Mitchell told the BBC, referring to the legendary Russian tsarist adviser, who is said to have survived multiple assassination attempts. “He was poisoned, stabbed, shot, thrown into a freezing river – and he’s still alive.” Another unnamed Tory told the BBC the “Boris cult” should not be underestimated. The shirt-sleeved prime minister is seen by many conservatives as the only candidate who can win elections. Johnson himself said he could imagine a third term in office in the 2030s – and he hasn’t even managed the first yet.
But in contrast to previous scandals, the mood is much grimmer. “I’m afraid it’s over,” Mitchell said. Others likened the situation to a slow-motion car crash. However, there is currently no real alternative, which is one of the reasons political scientist Garnett sees the party facing a protracted power struggle. If Johnson resigns now, in the midst of a severe economic crisis and in the face of pressing questions about his personal integrity, he will be considered one of the worst leaders in history, the expert said. “That makes it very unlikely that he will resign. His party will have to drag him out of Downing Street.”