Boris Johnson's torrid hours of survival crumbled to dust

Boris Johnson has been the 14th prime minister of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign and perhaps the most controversial

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Just days short of being three years in post, Boris Johnson signalled he would stand down on Thursday after a tumultuous revolt in Westminster rivalling any seen in recent political history.

Almost the entire bloc of remaining Cabinet ministers tried to convince Mr Johnson to resign from Tuesday but the pleas were given short shrift until the last. The prime minister lost more than 50 ministers and sacked his long-standing ally Michael Gove as a senior Cabinet minister. He suffering the late-night indignity of his attorney general, Suella Braverman, calling for his resignation and announcing her own bid for the leadership.

"The facts are undeniable, he can't command the confidence of sufficient numbers of people to serve in his government," she said on Thursday. "It's incredibly sad."

A contest for leadership of the Conservative Party ― and hence prime minister ― will be triggered immediately he leaves and a wide field of MPs are expected to seek a place in the final two candidates to go before the estimated 200,000 Tory members, who could vote in August.

Record resignations

The British leader faces an impossible pincer movement of mass resignations alongside the likelihood of a rule change that would force him to face a second no confidence vote on Tuesday next week.

One of the most dramatic power struggles seen in Westminster kicked off when BBC on Tuesday evening broadcast Mr Johnson’s “bitter regrets” over appointing Mr Pincher and Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced he was resigning. This was followed by the bombshell 10 minutes later when Chancellor Rishi Sunak quit as well.

Both men highlighted Mr Johnson’s lack of integrity.

Although stunned for a few hours, Downing Street appeared to have rescued the situation by rapidly appointing Iraqi-born Nadhim Zahawi as chancellor.

But on Wednesday morning, as Mr Zahawi was being interviewed, the torrent of resignations began. They abated only when Mr Johnson attended Prime Minister’s Questions at midday where the government benches listened in glum silence.

The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, proceed to skewer him with several barbs. “The sinking ship is fleeing the rat,” he said in reference to the growing number of ministerial resignations. Those left in the government were attempting the “charge of the lightweight brigade”.

“I going to hang on in there, that’s what I’m going to do,” Mr Johnson pledged, a comment that appeared to encourage more resignations.

A record 14 ministers left government on Wednesday, beating the 1932 record of 11 ministers in a day. There were at least another 30 junior government appointees who went too.

At 1pm there was a surreal moment in the lobby journalists' briefing after PMQs in which the prime minister’s press spokeswoman resolutely responded “yes” to questions that they would be able to fill the increasingly number of vacancies.

That proved improbable given the torrent of resignations that slowed only after Cabinet ministers realised that there would be no one left to run the country.

At 3pm Mr Johnson then went before the Liaison Committee of senior MPs where he suffered a grilling that was at times painful to watch as it went deep into his character traits and issues with the truth.

A last opportunity to convince MPs to remain loyal slipped away. The only guarantee he gave was not to hold a snap election if his resignation looked inevitable.

He then returned to Downing Street shortly after 5pm to meet the procession of loyal Cabinet ministers who had assembled to urge him to quit.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Downing Street, London, July 6, 2022.  Reuters

Final week

Last week the prime minister was sharing the international limelight alongside US President Joe Biden, President Emmanuel Macron of France and the Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg for the Madrid summit, where the alliance showed great unity.

That unity was not reflected on the home front.

Mr Johnson returned home on Thursday evening only to discover that his deputy chief whip, Chris Pincher, had resigned from government over allegedly groping two men on a drunken night out.

It emerged that Mr Johnson had been told of previous complaints against Mr Pincher when he appointed him as a whip in February. Originally Downing Street denied this was the case and even sent out ministers on broadcast interviews backing the line.

But the line soon unravelled. It finally took the intervention of former head of the Foreign Office civil service to write a letter that stated Mr Johnson was well aware of the complaints against Mr Pincher.

Members of the media wait outside 10 Downing Street on Thursday morning. Getty Images

In a BBC interview Lord Simon McDonald accused Downing Street of “telling the truth and crossing your fingers at the same time”.

But late on Tuesday afternoon it appeared that Mr Johnson could still survive until the autumn or even Christmas. That he would make it to the summer recess on July 21 and then await for the 1922 Committee, that oversees the Conservative Party, to have an election that could potentially change the rules for a second confidence vote.

Under the current rules only one confidence vote can be held a year. Mr Johnson won that on June 6 by a smaller margin than expected, with 211 votes to 148.

That vote was triggered by a series of missteps and scandals in Downing Street, in particular the lockdown-breaking parties labelled Partygate that resulted in Mr Johnson becoming the first prime minister to be issued a police fixed penalty fine.

The Tories also suffered two disastrous by-election defeats in late June, suggesting that public support for Mr Johnson was evaporating.

Legacy

Historians will pore over Mr Johnson’s legacy. With him gone it will become clearer exactly how much damage Brexit has done to Britain’s economy and its world standing. He will certainly receive the blame for that as the man who orchestrated the break from the European Union.

He was pro-active in getting Britain’s Covid-19 vaccine programme rolled out although this was largely thanks to the country’s world-leading medical research base.

He also led the calls to come to Ukraine’s aid with money and weapons after the Russian invasion. While this was genuine, it was also a useful deflection from his domestic political woes.

Post PM

It is assumed that Mr Johnson will return as a backbench MP and potentially to his column for The Daily Telegraph for which he earned £5,000 ($5,968) a week. However, neither is guaranteed. There is some speculation that his local party might attempt to remove him as the MP for Uxbridge via the deselection system. Furthermore, his Telegraph position is not guaranteed, particularly after the Conservative-supporting newspaper vociferously turned on his leadership in the past year.

He will receive the next three months of his £164,000 a year prime minister salary, but will then revert to the MP’s entitlement of £84,000.

No doubt he will get a significant advance to write his memoirs of his time in office as well as other books.

He will also have a personnel security detail for life, but his lifestyle will be very different to the one he has led for the past three years.

There could also be one final humiliation for Mr Johnson. The Standards and Privileges Committee has begun an investigation into whether he deliberately misled parliament over the Partygate affair. If it finds against him Mr Johnson will be suspended as an MP for several weeks. That could indeed prove the end of a tumultuous political career.

Boris Johnson through the years - in pictures

Updated: July 07, 2022, 10:45 AM
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