After losing two of his most senior ministers in minutes on Tuesday, an aide reportedly asked Boris Johnson if he was going to quit.
“Damn it,” he replied.
Johnson’s humiliating cabinet losses came as he apologized on TV for his latest scandal: his appointing Chris Pincher, an alleged serial sex offender, to a key government role, then lying about being never had knowledge of allegations against Pincher.
The two explosive resignations partly blamed Johnson’s blatant disregard for responsibility. Rishi Sunak, Britain’s outgoing finance minister, said a government should meet certain basic standards of competence and seriousness. “I believe those standards are worth fighting for and that’s why I’m stepping down,” Sunak said. Sajid Javid, the health minister appointed by Johnson, said he could no longer serve in government “in good conscience”, adding that the British public “rightly expect the integrity of their government”. Chris Skidmore, a Tory lawmaker, called Johnson’s actions an “effective cover-up of sexual abuse” in an excoriating open letter calling on his colleagues to oust the prime minister on Wednesday.
It is curious that his close cabinet colleagues suddenly find Johnson’s leadership to be intolerably lacking in integrity in the wake of the latest scandal. After all, Johnson has turned malfeasance — and getting away with it — into something like performance art. Before the Pincher scandal, reports mysteriously disappeared in the British media alleged that Johnson had tried to give a well-paid government job to his then mistress, now wife, Carrie, while he was Foreign Secretary. Also in June, his ethics adviser resigned over a UK industry protection plan that would “deliberately breach” Johnson’s own ministerial code. And it came in the wake of the Partygate scandal, in which it was discovered that Johnson had attended a series of alcohol-fueled lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street. The list is lengthened increasingly.
So why the sudden remorse for integrity? A crushing double election defeat in late June – seen as an important barometer of Johnson’s popularity – may well have something to do with it.
More resignations followed those of Sunak and Javid on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, including those of the solicitor general, two education ministers and even trade envoys to Kenya and Morocco, and more may well be on the way. . But while the haemorrhage of cabinet lawmakers on integrity grounds could be enough to unseat most prime ministers, it’s Boris Johnson: a man who critics say has turned No 10 into a machine for to defend its interests rather than the interests of the British people. He quickly reshuffled his cabinet on Tuesday evening to replace the outgoing ones and seems well on his way to clinging to power.
At least until it’s forced. After narrowly failing to oust Johnson in a no-confidence vote last month, rebellious Conservative Party lawmakers are said to be sharpening their knives again, fearing they will be wiped out in the next general election if Johnson remains leader. They will feel emboldened by this week’s high-profile resignations and will seek to use party rules to mount a new bid to defenestrate their prime minister.
Of course, it’s entirely possible Johnson could see the writing on the wall and resign of his own volition. But for now at least, it looks like the Johnson circus will go on for at least a little longer. The question is: how long?