Why is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson facing his biggest crisis and what's next?

Boris Johnson is clinging to power after dozens of British MPs resigned

The UK woke up Thursday morning as more than 50 members of the government left their posts. including five cabinet ministers.

The day before, Johnson began fighting on despite the surprise resignations of his finance secretary, his health secretary and dozens of other lawmakers, who have been furious over the latest saga to engulf Downing Street: the botched handling of a resignation by Johnson’s former deputy chief whip, Chris Pincher , who was accused of groping two men last week.

Johnson was beaten at the Prime Minister’s Questions and made a bloody appearance before a parliamentary committee of senior lawmakers in Parliament before a delegation of cabinet members arrived at Downing Street to urge Johnson to resign.

But Johnson refused to go down without a fight. On Wednesday night he fired close ally and senior Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove, who earlier in the day had urged Johnson to accept his time was up, according to CNN sources.

Another key ally, Home Secretary Priti Patel, told Johnson that the general Conservative Party view was that he had to go, a source close to Patel told CNN.

Why is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson facing his biggest crisis and what's next?

When news of Gove’s sacking broke, a spokesman for Johnson insisted the Prime Minister was in “really good spirits”.

Speaking to CNN, Johnson’s Parliamentary Private Secretary James Duddridge said Johnson “keeps fighting because he thinks he can win”.

When asked about Gove, Duddridge said: “I like Michael, Michael has been a great Secretary of State in many ways, he’s helping the Prime Minister in many ways,” adding that “he’s being replaced, we’ll move on.”

But the spate of resignations raised the question of how a prime minister bleeding out so much support could fill all the newly vacant positions. Five ministers resigned in one fell swoop Wednesday afternoon, and by the end of the workday, Johnson had lost more than three dozen members of his government. By Thursday morning, that number had risen to over 50.

Recent resignations have included Northern Ireland Minister Brandon Lewis and Education Secretary Michelle Donelan leaving their posts as the fourth and fifth cabinet members respectively.

The dramatic disintegration of Johnson’s political career could now be hours from completion; While he has so far refused to back down, Conservative lawmakers have debated restating their party rules and voted to oust him if necessary.

“At some point we have to come to the conclusion that enough is enough,” former health minister Sajid Javid, the first of many ministers to resign in the past 24 hours, said in parliament earlier on Wednesday. “I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem starts at the top, that’s not going to change.”

An endless series of scandals

Numerous prime ministers have been ousted from office by sudden and deadly rebellions within their own parties, with leaders usually choosing to resign as soon as the writing is on the wall. But the speed with which Johnson’s government has plunged into the abyss is reminiscent of few episodes in British political history.

Less than three years ago, Johnson secured a landslide electoral victory and then pushed through Brexit, a political revolution that many in his party had clamored for decades. As early as late last year, Johnson was in a healthy position in opinion polls. While the UK has the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe, Johnson has been spurred on by a popular vaccine rollout.
But then scandal after scandal ruined his public reputation. He attempted to lift the suspension of an ally accused of misconduct; he was fined by police for attending one of the many parties held in Downing Street during lockdown; he lost two MPs to sex scandals and failed to regain their seats in by-elections; and this week he admitted he had been briefed on an allegation against Pincher before promoting him to Deputy Chief Whip, although his ministers and aides originally claimed otherwise.

The Pincher saga was the last straw for many of his allies. Johnson narrowly survived a no-confidence vote earlier in June, but rebels have threatened to change party rules and allow another vote in the near future unless Johnson resigns – and he was now expected to lose.

Duddridge said Johnson understood lawmakers rallying against him could change the rules and call for another vote of confidence, but said a majority against him was “not a given”.

A dour Johnson struggled through the Prime Minister’s questions in Parliament, then answered questions from MPs in a parliamentary committee meeting that won support from even more of his allies.

Johnson’s efforts to stay in power were branded as “pathetic” by opposition leader Keir Starmer, who also directed his attack against the few allies in his cabinet who still supported him. “In the middle of a crisis, doesn’t the country deserve better than a Z-list with nodding dogs?” asked Starmer in Parliament.

Should Johnson resign, a Conservative leadership campaign would begin and the winner would also take over as Prime Minister.

This person would have to deal with domestic issues, such as a cost of living crisis that has hit UK households, and inherit a wealth of foreign pressures. Johnson has developed a good relationship with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and has been a leading player in Europe’s response to the Russian invasion.

CNN’s Luke McGee contributed coverage.

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