LONDON – His support is crumbling, his government in disarray, his alibis exhausted, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson frantically tried to salvage his position on Wednesday, even as a delegation of cabinet colleagues traveled to Downing Street to plead with their scandal-battered leader before resigning.
More than 30 government ministers or aides resigned, multiple Conservative Party lawmakers urged Johnson to resign, and he received a scathing reception in parliament, where back seats taunted “Bye, Boris!” as he left through a side door after a merciless grievance over his handling of the party’s latest sex and bullying scandal.
On a day of rapid developments, Mr Johnson vowed to fight on, insisting he had a voter mandate to usher Britain into its post-Brexit future, even as insurgent ministers tried to oust him.
On Wednesday night, Mr Johnson fired one of his closest advisers, Michael Gove, from a powerful economic post in the cabinet. Earlier in the day, the BBC reported that Mr Gove had urged Mr Johnson to resign.
That moment of drama was followed by the belated resignation of another minister, Simon Hart, the secretary of Wales.
Elsewhere in Westminster, lawmakers considered — and then postponed, for at least a few days — a change to party rules that would allow for another confidence vote, possibly next week, against the prime minister, who survived such a vote just a month ago.
There was a growing consensus that, however events unfold in the hours or days to come, the curtain fell on the Boris Johnson era. Less than three years after he entered Downing Street, before experiencing a wave of pro-Brexit passion to clinch a landslide electoral victory, Mr Johnson appeared cornered – a Protean political gambler finally out of his moves .
That doesn’t mean the end will come quickly or gracefully. Mr Johnson opposed calls from the Cabinet delegation to resign. He does not rule out calling early elections to cast his fate to British voters. Such a move would require Queen Elizabeth II’s assent, which could spark a political crisis.
“The job of a prime minister in dire circumstances, when he has been given a colossal mandate, is to carry on,” said a grim face of Mr Johnson in parliament, again rejecting calls for his resignation.
The opposition leader, Keir Starmer, brushed that off, annoyed Mr Johnson and the ministers who had yet to leave the prime minister after a seemingly endless stream of scandals. The final chapter of this drama began on Tuesday with the resignation of two senior ministers.
“Anyone who stops now, after defending all that, has not a shred of integrity,” said Mr. Starmer, the leader of the Labor Party, ominously over a table to Mr. Johnson staring. “Isn’t this the first recorded case of the sinking ship fleeing from the rats?”
Despite all the drama in Parliament, the real action took place out of sight on Wednesday, as Mr Johnson’s dwindling band of supporters and growing band of opponents maneuvered. Mr Johnson’s dismissal by Mr Gove was particularly indicted, as Mr Gove derailed Mr Johnson’s first bid for the leadership of the Tory party in 2016 by unexpectedly entering the contest himself.
The latest chapter in the crisis began on Tuesday when two senior ministers abruptly resigned: Finance Minister Rishi Sunak and Health Minister Sajid Javid. The trigger was Mr Johnson’s handling of a case involving Chris Pincher, a Conservative lawmaker who admitted to having been drunk at a private London club where he had allegedly groped two men.
Given the speed at which Mr Johnson’s government fell apart, many Tory lawmakers believe that Mr Johnson must be replaced soon to limit the electoral damage to the party. Even before the latest scandal broke, opinion polls showed the Conservatives were far behind Labour.
The dilemma for the party’s leading figures was whether to allow a quick no-confidence vote against Mr Johnson. Under existing party rules, such a vote cannot take place until a year after the last one, in June next year.
But the leaders of the 1922 committee, which represents Conservative lawmakers, were more likely to tear up their rulebook: When Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, won a confidence vote in 2018, but then failed her Brexit -plan by a jammed 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 Ms May, who agreed to step aside.
In an accelerated scenario, lawmakers would hold the confidence vote this time before the summer recess. If Mr Johnson lost, they would act quickly to select two leading candidates to replace him as party leader and prime minister. The two contenders would then participate in a final match where the selection is by the members of the party.
Tobias Ellwood, a former minister and critic of Mr Johnson, said he had reservations about changing the rules but believed it would happen if the prime minister refused to leave alone. He compared a change of leader to a visit to the dentist.
“We postponed it,” he said. “You have to go to the dentist and get through it — getting rid of Boris is that trip to the dentist.”
By acting quickly, Mr Ellwood said, the party could use the summer break to hold leadership elections and give a new prime minister a podium at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in the fall. That seemed increasingly likely as the situation worsened for Mr Johnson on Wednesday, with more than 30 deputy ministers and ministerial assistants resigning.
At one point, five deputy ministers in the same letter of resignation, including equality and local government minister, Kemi Badenoch, and Neil O’Brien, a minister responsible for Mr Johnson’s policies to “increase prosperity across the country.” ‘.
Downing Street could not provide a timetable for replacing others who said they could no longer serve Mr Johnson, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer John Glen and his Home Office colleague Victoria Atkins.
Mr Johnson was quick to announce replacements for Mr Sunak and Mr Javid, signaling his intention to try to contain the government. And he did his best to project a defiant image.
Faced with the prospect of another confidence vote, Mr Johnson could choose to call a general election instead, 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 swore to “Get Brexit Done”, and thrashed a divided Labor party.
Constitutional experts argue that the Queen could refuse to grant an election on the grounds that the Conservatives still have a significant parliamentary majority. However, turning down such a request could be difficult for Buckingham Palace, which prides itself on staying above politics. Moreover, the PvdA is eager to hold elections and would like to fight against a discredited prime minister.
But above all, there are the Houdini-esque instincts of Mr. johnson. In the past three years, he has survived multiple investigations, a police fine and a vote of no confidence among conservative lawmakers. He may believe he can escape one more time.
“Unlike most leaders, he doesn’t care how much damage he does when he goes out the door,” said Jonathan Powell, who served as chief of staff to former Prime Minister Tony Blair. ‘There is no one in our history who has had such a nature. Our system is not built for something like this.”