Attorney General Suella Braverman became the first member of Boris Johnson's Cabinet to say she will throw her hat into the ring in a leadership contest after publicly telling the prime minister he must step down.
Previously a staunch supporter of Mr Johnson, she said on Wednesday night that the prime minister had handled matters “appallingly” in recent days.
She was also part of a delegation of ministers who went to Downing Street to try to convince Mr Johnson, unsuccessfully, that he must give in to demands to quit.
She said she will continue in her role despite calling for the prime minister to go.
Her announcement on Wednesday night came shortly after Simon Hart, the Welsh Secretary, became the third Cabinet member to resign, just over 24 hours after Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak sparked an avalanche of resignations from Mr Johnson's team. By the end of Wednesday, at least 44 ministers and aides had stepped down.
On Thursday morning, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis ― another Cabinet member ― also announced his resignation. He was followed by junior minister Helen Whateley, bringing resignations to 46.
The latest scandal, which has pushed Mr Johnson to the brink, surrounds his handling of the Chris Pincher affair, an MP accused of groping men while drunk. Mr Pincher stood down last week from his position as a whip, a position intended to ensure the good behaviour of MPs. Downing Street has been accused of failing to give straight answers about what Mr Johnson knew about previous accusations against Mr Pincher.
Despite suffering more resignations than any UK prime minister in history, Mr Johnson was defiant and insisted that he would go on.
He fired Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, and began a new reshuffle.
Ms Braverman said: “The balance has tipped now in favour of saying that the Prime Minister ― it pains me to say it ― but it’s time to go.”
She said she will put her name into the ring if there is a leadership contest.
She told ITV's Robert Peston: “My first duty is to the country, Robert, and as attorney I’m the senior law officer.
“And we’re in a crisis and I have statutory legal and constitutional duties …
“I don’t want to resign because I have that duty. We need an attorney in government.”
Asked whether she recognises that Mr Johnson will probably sack her, she said: “That is his choice, and I will do whatever the prime minister asks me to do.”
Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and Ben Wallace would also be considered likely candidates to become the next prime minister.
The withdrawal of the attorney general’s support is a significant shift by the QC, who was elected as MP for Fareham in May 2015 before being appointed as the top legal official by Mr Johnson in February 2020.
She became the first Cabinet-level minister to take maternity leave and was reappointed to her ministerial position in September.
Special legislation had to be passed by parliament to enable her to take time off from her ministerial duties.
During her absence she was designated Minister on Leave (Attorney General) while her deputy, Solicitor General Michael Ellis, was made attorney general.
During last month’s confidence vote, Ms Braverman expressed hope the PM would win the poll with a large margin.
The Euro-sceptic had been a supporter of Mr Johnson since her days as the chair of the Brexit-backing European Research Group.
But Ms Braverman on Wednesday joined Home Secretary Priti Patel, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and Welsh Secretary Simon Hart among Cabinet ministers telling Mr Johnson to stand down.
But Mr Johnson, 58, told his closest supporters he would not quit and that it was a choice between a summer focused on economic growth or the chaos of a leadership contest.
He also predicted a new leader would be forced to call a general election.
Allies said Mr Johnson would "fight on" and launch new economic policies within days.
The Labour Party was considering a motion of no confidence in the House of Commons on Thursday to push the Conservative party rebels and test the government's majority.
New reshuffle begins
Mr Gove, like Mr Johnson a former newspaper columnist, teamed up with the prime minister to campaign for Brexit in the referendum.
He was sacked by Theresa May when she took power after the shock result but returned to the front line in the Johnson team in 2019.
Mr Gove was appointed education secretary in 2010 when the coalition took over from Labour.
The BBC reported a Downing Street source who said the sacking of Mr Gove was a purge of those who were disloyal.
“You cannot have a snake who is not with you on any of the big arguments who then gleefully briefs the press that he has called for the leader to go," the official was quoted as saying.
“You cannot operate like that.”
Resignations were rumoured around Westminster in tandem with the reshuffle news.
Ms Patel spoke to Mr Johnson to convey the “overwhelming view” of the parliamentary party, code for saying that he did not have enough support.
Reports even suggested that Nadhim Zahawi, who was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer only on Tuesday, was among those taking part in the showdown with Mr Johnson.
Leaving the confrontation in Downing Street, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said ministers were still backing Mr Johnson.
Asked as she left Downing Street, if she still supported Mr Johnson, she said: “Definitely." And asked if others were backing him, Ms Dorries replied: “Oh yes."
Greg Hands, a junior minister with responsibility for energy, said Mr Johnson would not quit until most of the Cabinet had stepped down.
"I think the majority of the government has not resigned, the majority of government is carrying on and we will have to see what happens at the top, yeah," Mr Hands said.
Asked how he could continue to serve in a government hit by scandal, he said: "Because I have got a job to do, to deliver on energy and climate change, and that's exactly what I am going to be carrying on doing."
Throughout the day, Mr Johnson gave a spirited defence of his position on the floor of parliament on Wednesday after losing dozens more colleagues, including Sajid Javid, the health secretary, and chancellor Rishi Sunak.
By Wednesday night the tally of those bailing out had reached 42.
“This week again, we have reason to question the truth and integrity of what we've all been told and that at some point we have to conclude that enough is enough,” Mr Javid said. “I believe that point is now.”
The UK leader had already replaced Mr Sunak with Mr Zahawi and vowed to fight on despite being assailed by a set of ministerial departures.
Enough is enough
In a particularly brutal swipe, Mr Javid accused Mr Johnson of sending ministers out to publicly lie for him.
“I also believe a team is as good as its team captain and a captain is as good as his or her team,” he said.
“It’s not fair on ministerial colleagues to go out every morning defending lines that don’t stand up and don’t hold up.”
Mr Javid suggested he had been disturbed by what was going in Number 10 in recent months.
“Effective governance inevitably requires loyalty and collective responsibility, of course it does, and I am instinctively a team player and I have completely focused on governing effectively over the last year,” he said.
“But treading the tightrope between loyalty and integrity has become impossible in recent months.”
Conservative MP David Simmonds said the prime minister should go because the “message has been very clear from colleagues”.
On a backbench 1922 Committee meeting, Mr Simmonds said there was near unanimity.
“There was one person I can think of [who thought he should stay] but other than that, no. I think it was a pretty strong view across the piece.”
He said there were quite a few “good candidates” to replace Mr Johnson as leader.