British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s grip on power was loosening by the minute on Wednesday amid more resignations of once-loyal MPs who now distance themselves from his leadership.
Seven members of his team quit the government before Prime Minister's Questions began at noon, following 10 departures on Tuesday evening.
By Wednesday evening, the tally had reached 38. The resignations started with Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid, who delivered broadsides at Mr Johnson as they quit their Cabinet posts. Both said they could no longer tolerate the sense of scandal that has followed Mr Johnson for months.
In the face of growing opposition, Mr Johnson projected an air of defiance when he appeared before MPs in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon.
Mr Quince said he could not accept being sent out to defend Mr Johnson on television with inaccurate information over the Chris Pincher row.
Mr Pincher held a government role but stepped down after being accused of groping two male MPs. It then emerged that there had been a string of allegations against him, with Downing Street struggling to give a convincing version of events.
Laura Trott then quit as a ministerial aide, saying “trust in politics is — and must always be — of the utmost importance, but sadly in recent months this has been lost”.
Schools Minister Robin Walker followed, saying the government has been “overshadowed by mistakes and questions about integrity”.
Treasury Minister John Glen was next. “I can no longer reconcile my commitment to the role” with “the complete lack of confidence I have in your continuing leadership of our country”, he said.
Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins resigned, saying she had given Mr Johnson the benefit of the doubt at each turn, but he had made “the contortions impossible”.
Parliamentary Private Secretary Felicity Buchan and agriculture undersecretary Jo Churchill were next to step down.
Departures on Tuesday included trade envoy to Morocco Andrew Murrison, Tory party vice chairman Bim Afolami, Solicitor General Alex Chalk, and junior ministers Jonathan Gullis, Saqib Bhatti, and Nicola Richards.
Another, Virginia Crosbie, told Mr Johnson: “You cannot be trusted to tell the truth. You can serve this country one last time by leaving office.”
Theodora Clarke resigned as a trade envoy, saying as one of the party’s new female MPs she took allegations of sexual misconduct very seriously and his handling of the Pincher affair had shown a “severe lack of judgment”.
Other Cabinet members, including Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace — two likely contenders for the leadership — continue to back Mr Johnson, aides said.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a doggedly loyal cabinet ally, dismissed the resignations as “little local difficulties”.
Resignations at a glance — 38
Sajid Javid, Health Secretary
Rishi Sunak, Chancellor
Andrew Murrison, trade envoy
Bim Afolami, vice chairman
Jonathan Gullis, aide
Saqib Bhatti, aide
Nicola Richards, aide
Virginia Crosbie, aide
Theo Clarke, trade envoy
Alex Chalk, Solicitor General
Will Quince, Children’s Minister
Laura Trott, aide
Robin Walker, Schools Minister
John Glen, Treasury Minister
Victoria Atkins, Home Office Minister
Felicity Buchan, aide
Jo Churchill, Environment Minister
Stuart Andrew, Housing Minister
Claire Coutinho, parliamentary private secretary to the Treasury
Selaine Saxby, aide
David Johnson, parliamentary private secretary at the Department for Education
Kemi Badenoch, Minister for Levelling Up Communities and Equalities
Julia Lopez, Data Minister
Mims Davies, Employment Minister
Lee Rowley, Industry Minister
Neil O’Brien, levelling up minister
Alex Burghart, Skills Minister
Craig Williams, parliamentary private secretary to the Treasury
Fay Jones, parliamentary private secretary to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Mark Logan, parliamentary private secretary to the Northern Ireland Office
Rachel Maclean, parliamentary under-secretary of state for safeguarding at the Home Office
Mike Freer, parliamentary under-secretary of state for exports at the Department for International Trade
Mark Fletcher, parliamentary private secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Sara Britcliffe, parliamentary private secretary at the Department for Education
Ruth Edwards, parliamentary private secretary at the Scottish Office
Peter Gibson, parliamentary private secretary at the Department for Trade
David Duguid, trade envoy
James Sunderland, parliamentary private secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Johnson defiant as he faces MPs
Mr Johnson sought to deflect attention away from the Pincher scandal at Prime Minister's Questions.
In an effort to give the impression it was business as usual in No 10, he opened the session by focusing on his administration's implementation of “the biggest tax cut for a decade” to help households struggling under the cost-of-living crisis.
Mr Johnson was flanked on the Tory front bench by loyalist Dominic Raab and the new chancellor Mr Zahawi.
Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer held nothing back in his criticism of Mr Johnson's handling of the Pincher saga, going into graphic detail with the account of one of his accusers.
“I accept that is not easy listening, but it is a reminder to all those propping up this prime minister just how serious this situation is,” the Labour leader said.
“He knew the accused minister had previously committed predatory behaviour but he promoted him to a position of power anyway. Why?”
Mr Johnson responded by saying “very serious complaints” against Mr Pincher remain under investigation and it is “absolutely true” that a complaint was raised about the MP's behaviour before he was given a high position in the current administration.
“I greatly regret that he continued in office, and I have said that,” Mr Johnson said. “I have said that before. I have said that before, but it is now a subject of an independent investigation, and that is the right thing.”
Sir Keir lambasted Mr Johnson for sending his allies to defend “his decision to promote a sexual predator”.
He added that it was no longer enough for Mr Johnson to be replaced by another Tory MP as prime minister, and instead insisted it was time for the ruling Conservatives to be removed from power.
The Scottish National Party’s leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, drew laughs when he said the prime minister was just a few days ago “dreaming of a third term” in Downing Street. He said it was nothing short of a “minor miracle” that Mr Johnson was still in power.
“A few weeks ago I compared the prime minister to Monty Python’s Black Knight, actually turns out I was wrong. He’s actually the dead parrot,” Mr Blackford said.
Conservative MP Gary Sambrook’s call for Mr Johnson to step down prompted a round of applause within the chamber.
“In an attempt to boost morale in the tea room, the prime minister said at a table that there were seven people — MPs — in the Carlton Club last week, and that one of them should have tried to intervene to stop Chris [Pincher] from drinking so much,” Mr Sambrook said.
“As if that wasn’t insulting enough to the people who did try to intervene that night and also to the victims — that drink was the problem.”
“The prime minister is constantly trying to deflect from the issue, always try to blame other people for mistakes,” he said. “There is at least nothing left for him to do other than to take responsibility and resign.”
After MPs erupted into a round of applause, Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle reprimanded them as clapping in the chamber is discouraged.
Mr Johnson vowed to “keep going” as prime minister despite growing opposition among his own MPs.
He faced hours of questions from the leaders of the Commons' most powerful committees, who include some of his most virulent critics in the Tory ranks.
Much of the focus will be on the Pincher affair.
Days of shifting explanations had followed the resignation of the deputy chief whip, a position intended to keep MPs' behaviour in check. Downing Street at first denied Mr Johnson knew of prior allegations against Mr Pincher when appointing him in February.
But by Tuesday, that defence had collapsed after a former top civil servant said Mr Johnson, as foreign minister, was told in 2019 about another incident.
The Pincher affair was the “icing on the cake” for Mr Sunak and Mr Javid, Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, a Johnson critic, told Sky News.
“I and a lot of the party now are determined that he will be gone by the summer break time [starting on July 22]: the sooner the better.”
Rishi Sunak throws in the towel
Mr Sunak's departure in particular, in the middle of policy differences over a cost-of-living crisis sweeping Britain, was bad news for Mr Johnson.
In his resignation letter, he said “the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously”.
“I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning,” Mr Sunak wrote to Mr Johnson.
Mr Javid preceded Mr Sunak at the Treasury before quitting over an earlier dispute with Mr Johnson.
He wrote that the prime minister's survival in last month's no-confidence vote gave him the opportunity to show “humility, grip and new direction”.
“I regret to say, however, that it is clear to me that this situation will not change under your leadership — and you have therefore lost my confidence, too.”
Boris Johnson's rollercoaster career — in pictures
Mr Johnson, 58, has been embroiled in several scandals, above all the Partygate affair, in which he was fined by police for breaking his own coronavirus lockdown restrictions in Downing Street.
He still faces a parliamentary inquiry into whether he lied to MPs over the lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street.
On Wednesday, Mr Zahawi hinted at reversing a planned rise in corporation tax as part of the effort to restore trust between the leadership and Tory MPs.
But the Cabinet reshuffle does not appear to have persuaded Mr Johnson’s critics to hold fire.
Minister who defended PM on TV quits over 'inaccurate' briefing
Mr Quince was one of the ministers sent on the airwaves to defend Mr Johnson’s position over Mr Pincher, who quit as deputy chief whip after allegedly assaulting two men while drunk at a London club.
The prime minister later acknowledged he had previously been informed of allegations against Mr Pincher dating to 2019 and said he regretted keeping him in government beyond that point.
Mr Quince said he had received a “sincere apology” from Mr Johnson for being sent out with an “inaccurate” briefing about the prime minister’s knowledge of events.
But “I have no choice but to tender my resignation” as “I accepted and repeated those assurances in good faith”.
The prime minister’s authority had already been damaged by a confidence vote in which 41 per cent of his own MPs withdrew their support in June.
The loss of crunch by-elections in Tiverton and Honiton and Wakefield later that month led to the resignation of party chairman Oliver Dowden, while there is still lingering anger over coronavirus lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street.
Tory MPs are also uneasy about the government’s high spending, high taxing approach following the pandemic.
Mr Zahawi sought to reassure Conservatives that “nothing is off the table” when questioned about possibly cancelling the planned increase in corporation tax from 19 per cent to 25 per cent in April 2023.
“I will look at everything. There’s nothing off the table. I want to be one of the most competitive countries in the world for investment,” he told Sky News.
“I know that boards around the world, when they make investment decisions, they’re long term, and the one tax they can compare globally is corporation tax. I want to make sure that we are as competitive as we can be while maintaining fiscal discipline.”
Mr Zahawi toured the broadcast studios after Mr Quince's resignation and told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “He felt let down, clearly. All I would say to my colleagues is, people don’t vote for divided teams.”
But the chancellor said he believed the prime minister had integrity and was “determined to deliver for this country”.