LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a potentially fatal political blow on Tuesday when two of his most senior ministers resigned in an apparent coordinated revolt against his scandal-tainted leadership.
Two ministers — Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunakand Health Secretary Sajid Javid — resigned after Mr Johnson apologized for the latest scandal to engulf his government, involving allegations of sexual misconduct and excessive drinking by a Conservative lawmaker.
The sudden departures have opened another rift in Mr Johnson’s government at a time when he is already battling a revolt among lawmakers in his own party, who are angry after months of embarrassing reports of public gatherings in Downing Street breaching the government’s own coronavirus lockdown rules .
Mr Johnson quickly announced the replacements for Mr Sunak and Mr Javid, making it clear he plans to try to strengthen the government and fight for his position. But the prime minister appeared to be in more political danger than at any time during his tumultuous three-year tenure in Downing Street.
Analysts and some senior Conservative lawmakers said the fallout from the resignation could wipe out any support Mr Johnson had left in the party, and within hours Alex Chalk, the solicitor general, and several junior public servants also quit. Even analysts who were reluctant to write the Prime Minister’s political obituary said he faced a barred road to avoid being ousted.
“I don’t see how he’s going to survive it — it’s really the end of the road this time,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “Javid and Sunak getting together punches a much bigger hole in the closet than it would if it was one or the other.”
Mr Johnson, a freelance journalist-turned-politician, appeared to defy the laws of political gravity, surviving numerous investigations, a criminal police fine and vote of no confidence among lawmakers in his Conservative Party just last month – all related to parties being held in Downing Street during the coronavirus shutdown.
Because he survived a vote of confidence, he cannot face another for a year unless party rules are changed. This means that a cabinet resignation may be the only effective way to force him to resign. The high-profile resignations shocked some of Mr Johnson’s predecessors, including Margaret Thatcher.
Part of Mr Johnson’s strength has been the unanimity of support for his cabinet despite a relentless barrage of negative headlines.
Hours after the resignations of Mr Sunak and Mr Javid, Mr Johnson appointed Nadhim Zahavi, the education minister who was better known for his vigorous roll-out of coronavirus vaccines, as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Steve Barclay, his chief of staff in Downing Street , as Minister of Health.
But changes on the fly cause their own problems. Mr Barclay was only recruited in February to clean up Downing Street after the party scandal. Mr Johnson is also yet to replace Oliver Dowden, the Conservative party leader, who resigned after two crushing defeats in the general election last month.
The losses crystallized fears among many conservatives that Mr. Johnson had lost his reputation as a vote-getting champion, a reputation he built on the party’s landslide victory in 2019 and which has helped him survive a string of scandals.
However, it was the recent furor over Mr Johnson’s promotion to the Conservative MPs that Chris Pincherwhich seemed to tip Mr Sunak and Mr Javid.
Mr Pincher resigned as party deputy chairman last week after admitting he was drunk at a private members’ club in London where it was alleged he groped two men. He was suspended from the party while the allegations were investigated, but he did not resign as a member of parliament.
On Tuesday, Downing Street acknowledged that Mr Johnson had been told of the previous allegations against Mr Pincher in 2019 – something Mr Johnson’s office had initially denied. In what has become a familiar ritual in British politics, the Prime Minister apologized on the BBC for exalting Mr Pincher.
“In hindsight, it’s wrong,” Mr Johnson said, “and I apologize to anyone who was affected by it.”
If the prime minister thought that an act of contrition would be enough to keep restive ministers and lawmakers at bay, he was wrong. Mr. Sunak, who as chancellor held what is traditionally the second most powerful position in government, submitted a bluntly critical letter of resignation.
“The public rightly expects the government to act appropriately, competently and seriously,” Mr Sunak wrote. “I realize this may be my last ministerial role, but I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning.”
Mr Javid, who preceded Mr Sunak as chancellor before being ousted and then appointed by Mr Johnson as health secretary, wrote: “It is with great regret that I have to tell you that I can no longer with clean conscience, continue to serve in this government. I am instinctively a team player, but the British people also rightly expect integrity from their government.’
Both men are major figures in the party, though with their own potential leadership aspirations Mr. Sunak’s star has dimmed in recent months over questions about his wealthy wife’s tax status in Britain.
One of the reasons the Cabinet’s support is important to Mr Johnson is that it has prevented a major figure from becoming his rival. Whether Mr Sunak or Mr Javid will try to take on the role remains open, as does whether other ambitious cabinet ministers will follow.
It emerged on Tuesday night that several senior Cabinet ministers were staying on, including Foreign Secretary Liz Truss; Secretary of Defense Ben Wallace; and Michael Gove, a former rival of Mr Johnson’s who holds a key Cabinet portfolio, overseeing economic policy to “even out” troubled areas.
Mr. Johnson successfully fended off the no-confidence vote in large part because there was no clear successor, but it made his vulnerability starkly clear: More than 40 percent of lawmakers in his party voted to remove him. The collapsing cabinet immediately puts several potential successors on the stage. And party officials are already debating whether to change the rules to schedule another confidence vote earlier than next June.
The outrage over the circumstances of Mr Pincher’s appointment – and the shifting assessment of them in Downing Street – is just the latest in a series of scandals surrounding Mr Johnson. Earlier this year, he was fined by police for breaching lockdown rules at Downing Street, where members of his staff were found to have held several drunken parties in breach of the pandemic ban.
Questions have also been raised about Johnson’s expensive renovation of his Downing Street flat, which was initially funded by a Conservative Party donor. The Prime Minister also strongly defended Conservative MP Owen Paterson for breaking lobbying rules, only to later reverse course and apologise.
As the latest drama unfolded on Tuesday night, some conservative lawmakers made it clear they believed Mr Johnson should not return.
“I voted against Boris Johnson in the recent confidence vote and reiterated my concerns earlier today,” Laurence Robertson, a veteran Conservative MP, wrote on Twitter. “The cabinet resignations show that others agree that the problems of recent months have become a distraction from the problems facing the country. Now the prime minister must resign.”
Mark Harper, the former chief executive, also discussed the resignations of Mr Sunak and Mr Javid in a post on Twitter. “Honorable decisions made by honorable people,” he said. “The conservative party still has a lot to offer our country. It’s time for a new start.”
Julian Knight, another Conservative MP, wrote on Twitter that with politicians like Mr Javid and Mr Sunak, “I’m afraid enough is enough. It’s time for the party to take a new direction.”
Megan Speziafiled a report.