Boris Johnson scrambles to save himself

EuroActiv Politico News

LONDON — Boris Johnson isn’t going anywhere — at least not for now.

Despite losing his Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid within minutes of each other, after both resigned Tuesday evening, Johnson won’t budge, according to his allies. In total, 10 people in Johnson’s administration quit, including two unpaid trade envoys.

The turbulence marks an escalation of a crisis that has engulfed Johnson’s government for months. A string of revelations, first about coronavirus lockdown-busting parties attended by key figures at the top of British politics including Johnson himself, and later concerning the government’s poor handling of successive allegations of abusive behavior by Conservative MPs, have shaken the prime minister’s grip on power.

Compounded by a poor performance in two recent by-elections, many senior Conservatives report a consensus that Johnson’s time in power is coming to an end.

But the vagaries of the British political system, particularly in the hands of a prime minister who critics agree would need to be dragged out of power kicking and screaming, make it likely Johnson will cling on for a while yet.

There is no immediate mechanism to remove him. Convention dictates that a prime minister do the gentlemanly thing and bow out voluntarily once they lose the confidence of their party.

Johnson narrowly survived a vote of confidence in his leadership in June and under current Conservative Party rules, he is immune from another challenge until 12 months have passed. But anti-Johnson rebels are working to get themselves elected onto the executive of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers — which oversees the rules — in order to scrap this rule and trigger an earlier confidence vote.

The prime minister also faces a probe by the privileges committee — a group of MPs that has been tasked to examine whether he misled the House of Commons with his statements on lockdown-breaking parties in No. 10 Downing Street. The results of that investigation are expected in the autumn and could trigger his resignation.

Another more unlikely way for Johnson to be ousted is by losing a no-confidence vote in the Commons, a scenario which would require enough Conservative MPs to side with opposition parties to force him out by a simple majority.

Finally, his position could become politically untenable if he faced a mass Cabinet resignation, with more members of his top team quitting en masse.

All signs Tuesday were that the prime minister was staying put, with a defiant reshuffle of his top team designed to shore up his position. Nadhim Zahawi was made chancellor — the U.K. finance minister and second most senior figure in government — and Steve Barclay became health secretary, where he will oversee the NHS.

Unfortunately for Johnson, the steady drumbeat of backbench MPs expressing dissatisfaction in his leadership only grew louder, with a number who said they were fully behind him a month ago now telling journalists they had submitted letters of no confidence in his leadership.

The prime minister also appeared to be bleeding support from Conservative party members and voters. A snap poll by YouGov found that 69 percent of voters thought he should resign, up 11 points on a month ago, and that 54 percent of people who voted Tory in 2019 shared that view.

Brace, brace

Officials in both the Sunak and Javid camps insisted that their resignations, which came less than 10 minutes apart, were not coordinated. An official in Sunak’s team said the first he had learned of Javid’s resignation was seeing his resignation letter published online.

Javid quit with a blast at Johnson’s integrity, saying he could no longer serve in his government in “good conscience.” Sunak wrote that he believed the government should be “conducted properly, competently and seriously” and that those standards were “worth fighting for.” He stressed that their approaches to the economy were “fundamentally too different.”

Sunak and Javid are close political allies and are talked about as potential leadership contenders. Javid was chancellor before Sunak but quit in an internal power struggle over the running of No. 10. Both position themselves as fiscal conservatives, not as comfortable boosting spending on public services as Johnson.

Tory party vice chairman Bim Afolami later effectively resigned live on air.

Afolami told the talkTV news channel that he no longer supported the prime minister and that he believed both the Tory party and the country felt the same. When the program host reminded Afolami that he is a government minister, he responded that he is “probably not after having said that” and confirmed he is planning to quit.

Even later on Tuesday night, Alex Chalk, the solicitor general, quit with a letter saying that under Johnson, “public confidence in the ability of Number 10 to uphold the standards of candor expected of a British government has irretrievably broken down.”

The prime minister could count on the public backing of a handful of his most loyal allies. Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, tweeted that she was “100 percent” behind him and that he “consistently gets all the big decisions right.”

On Wednesday, Johnson is due to face the so-called prime minister’s questions in parliament and a grilling by the powerful liaison committee, which is made up of Commons select committee chairs.

Annabelle Dickson and Andrew McDonald contributed reporting.