LONDON — A defiant Boris Johnson insisted now is not the time to quit as U.K. prime minister, even as resignations from his government continued to mount and Conservative MPs pressed ahead with a plan to remove him.
Speaking in the House of Commons in front of stony-faced Tory MPs Wednesday, Johnson — hit Tuesday evening by the exit of two senior Cabinet ministers and further lower-level resignations since — argued it is “exactly when times are tough” that his government should press on.
“The job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances, when he’s been handed a colossal mandate, is to keep going and that’s what I’m going to do,” Johnson said, when challenged by his own MPs on what exactly would prompt him to quit.
Opposition leader Keir Starmer repeatedly mocked Johnson in the fiery session of prime minister’s questions, and described the U.K. leader’s responses as the “dying acts of his political career.”
In a withering statement to the Commons following PMQs, Sajid Javid — whose resignation as health secretary Tuesday began the wave of exits — hit out at the prime minister for sending colleagues out to defend the indefensible on television. “At some point we have to conclude that enough is enough,” he told MPs. “I believe that point is now. The reset button can only work so many times.”
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.
As of lunchtime Wednesday, he had been hit by more than 15 resignations in less than 24 hours. One minister in the environment department, Jo Churchill, quit just as Johnson got to his feet in the House of Commons.
While Johnson is insisting he will fight on, and has moved to replace the key posts of chancellor and health secretary vacated by Rishi Sunak and Javid respectively, he faces a renewed threat from his own MPs.
Johnson cannot currently be challenged by his own MPs for a year as he won a confidence vote last month, but that could change if the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative lawmakers, meeting 4 p.m. U.K. time on Wednesday evening, opts to change party rules.
Anti-Johnson rebels had been planning to get themselves elected on to the powerful group’s committee to change the rules and mount another challenge to Johnson. But, in a sign of Johnson’s sapping authority, the existing executive is now expected to discuss doing this even without a change in personnel.
Johnson’s spokesperson told reporters Wednesday that the prime minister remained confident he had the support of his own MPs — and that believed he would win a fresh confidence vote.