LONDON (AP) — With his support crumbling, his government in disarray, his alibis exhausted, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson frantically tried Wednesday to salvage his position, even as a delegation of cabinet colleagues traveled to Downing Street to plead with his leader marked by the scandal to reduce.
More than 30 ministers or advisers to the government resigned, several Conservative Party lawmakers urged Johnson to resign, and he was given a withering reception in Parliament, where MPs jeered “Bye, Boris!” him as he walked out a side door after a merciless interrogation about his handling of the party’s latest sex and harassment scandal.
In a day of rapid events, Johnson vowed to keep fighting and insisted he had a mandate from voters to lead Britain into its post-Brexit future, even as rogue cabinet ministers tried to evict him.
On Wednesday night, Johnson fired one of his closest advisers, Michael Gove, from a powerful economic cabinet post. Earlier in the day, the BBC reported that Gove had urged Johnson to resign.
That dramatic moment was followed by the late-night resignation of another cabinet minister, Simon Hart, the Welsh secretary.
Elsewhere in Westminster, lawmakers considered, then postponed, at least for a few days, a change in party rules that would allow another vote of confidence, possibly next week, against the prime minister, who survived such a vote just a month ago.
There was a growing consensus that, regardless of how events unfold in the next few hours or days, the curtain was falling on the era of Boris Johnson. Less than three years after he entered Downing Street, before he rode a wave of passion for Brexit. to win a landslide election victoryJohnson seemed cornered, a protean political player finally without a move.
That doesn’t mean the end will come quickly or gracefully. Mr. Johnson resisted calls by the cabinet delegation for him to resign. He has not ruled out calling a snap election to cast his fate on British voters. Such a move would need the consent of Queen Elizabeth II, which could precipitate a political crisis.
“The job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances, when you have been given a colossal mandate, is to carry on,” Johnson said grimly in parliament, rejecting another call for resignation.
Opposition leader Keir Starmer downplayed that, criticizing Johnson and cabinet ministers who have yet to abandon the prime minister after a seemingly endless series of scandals. The last chapter of this drama started on Tuesday with the resignations of two senior ministers.
“Anyone who resigns now, after defending all that, hasn’t got an ounce of integrity,” said Starmer, the Labor Party leader, glaring across a table at Johnson. “Isn’t this the first recorded case of the ship sinking running from rats?”
For all the drama in Parliament, the real action on Wednesday occurred out of sight, where Johnson’s dwindling band of supporters and a growing band of opponents maneuvered. Johnson’s firing of Gove was particularly pointed, as in 2016 Gove derailed Johnson’s first bid for the leadership of the Tory Party by unexpectedly entering the race.
The latest chapter in the crisis began on Tuesday when two senior cabinet ministers abruptly resigned: Finance Minister Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid. The trigger was Johnson’s handling of a case involving Chris Pincher, a Conservative lawmaker who admitted to being drunk at a private London club where he allegedly groped two men.
Given the speed with which the Johnson government was unraveling, many Conservative lawmakers believe Johnson needs to be replaced quickly to mitigate electoral damage to the party. Even before the latest scandal broke, opinion polls showed the Conservatives trailing far behind Labour.
The dilemma for top party figures was whether to allow a quick no-confidence vote against Johnson. Under existing party rules, there can’t be another such vote until a year after the last one, next June.
But the leaders of the 1922 Committee, which represents Conservative lawmakers, have been willing to rip up their rulebook before: When Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, won a vote of confidence in 2018 but then failed to push through her Brexit plan to through a stalled Parliament.
According to Graham Brady, who chairs the committee, the proposed rule change was in his pocket when he went to meet the prime minister, but he never showed it to Mrs May, who agreed to step aside.
Under a fast-track scenario this time, lawmakers would hold the vote of confidence before the summer recess. If Johnson lost, they would move quickly to select two leading candidates to replace him as party leader and prime minister. The two contenders would then participate in a final contest in which the selection would be made by party members.
Tobias Ellwood, a former minister and critic of Johnson, said he had reservations about changing the rules but believed it would happen if the prime minister refused to go it alone. He liked a change of leadership to a trip to the dentist.
“We’ve been putting it off,” he said. “You have to go to the dentist and get over it; getting rid of Boris is that trip to the dentist.”
Fast-forwarding, Ellwood said, would allow the party to use the summer break to hold a leadership election and give the new prime minister a platform at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in the autumn. That seemed increasingly likely as the situation worsened for Johnson on Wednesday, with more than 30 junior ministers and ministerial assistants tendering their resignations.
At one point, five junior ministers resigned in the same letter of resignation, including equality and local government minister Kemi Badenoch and Neil O’Brien, a minister responsible for Johnson’s policy of “leveling out” prosperity across the world. country.
Downing Street was unable to give a timetable for replacing others who declared they could no longer serve Johnson, including Treasury Secretary John Glen and his Home Office colleague Victoria Atkins.
Johnson moved quickly to announce the replacements for Sunak and Javid, indicating that he planned to try to stabilize the government. And he did his best to project a defiant image.
Faced with the prospect of a new vote of confidence, Johnson could opt to call a general election, even if the prospects for his party are bleak. The prime minister has repeatedly reminded critics of his party’s landslide victory in 2019, when he promised to “Finish Brexit” and defeated a divided Labor Party.
Constitutional experts argue that the queen could refuse to grant an election on the grounds that the Conservatives still hold a sizable parliamentary majority. Refusing such a request, however, may be difficult for Buckingham Palace, which prides itself on staying above politics. Furthermore, the Labor Party is eager for an election and would relish a fight against a disgraced prime minister.
Above all else, though, are Mr. Johnson’s Houdini instincts. In the last three years, he has survived multiple investigations, a criminal fine by the police and a vote of no confidence among Conservative lawmakers. He may believe that he can escape once more.
“Unlike most leaders, he doesn’t care how much damage he does by walking out the door,” said Jonathan Powell, who served as former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff. “There is no one in our history who has had this kind of nature. Our system is not designed for something like this.”