Boris Johnson clung to power on Tuesday night after Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid dramatically resigned from the British Prime Minister’s cabinet within minutes.
A number of younger members of the government also resigned, and many Tory MPs believed the ministerial mutiny could spell the beginning of the end for Johnson.
But there was relief at Downing Street when a number of other senior figures – including Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace and rising Secretary Michael Gove – said they would stay.
Johnson immediately began reshuffling his cabinet. Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi was appointed as the new Chancellor. Steve Barclay, a former Treasury Secretary and currently Johnson’s chief of staff, replaces Javid as health secretary.
Alex Chalk, Attorney General, was the third minister to leave Johnson’s government. In his letter to the Prime Minister, he said “Number 10’s ability to upload the openness standards expected of a UK government has irretrievably broken down”.
Many Conservative MPs believe Johnson’s term is nearing the end. Last month, more than 40 percent of MPs expressed no confidence in their leader, and cabinet unity has shattered.
Sunak and Javid criticized the prime minister’s behavior, and Sunak said in a heartbreaking resignation letter: “The public has a right to expect the government to be properly, competently and seriously run.”
In a day when Johnson’s honesty was questioned, Sunak hinted that the prime minister was ready to mislead voters about the ailing economy and the need for “difficult decisions”.
“I think the public is ready to hear the truth,” he said, adding that he and Johnson “fundamentally” disagree over economic policy. “Our people know that if something is too good to be true, it isn’t true.”
Loyal Tory MPs said Johnson had told them he was now more likely to propose early tax cuts, a policy popular with Tory right-wingers but which Sunak fears could fuel inflation if price hikes head towards double digits walk.
Johnson also wants to reverse a planned corporate tax hike from 19 percent to 25 percent next year, a move opposed by Sunak, who believed the hike was necessary to repair public finances.
Sunak’s resignation came minutes after his old friend Javid resigned. In his letter, Javid said, “The tone you set as a leader, the values you hold, reflect your peers, your party and ultimately the country.”
Sunak and Javid’s resignations follow the forced departure of disgraced former assistant chief whip Chris Pincher last week after he claimed he had drunkenly groped two men at a private club.
Downing Street insisted for days that Johnson had not been informed of “specific allegations” of Pincher’s wrongdoing in the past. On Tuesday, Johnson admitted he had been briefed on the allegations in 2019 – but had forgotten. “It’s an absolute disgrace,” said one minister.
With ministers unwilling to publicly defend him, the prime minister gave an interview to the BBC ahead of the resignation, apologizing for Pincher’s appointment as deputy chief whip in February. “In retrospect, that was wrong,” he says.
But when Johnson’s belated apology aired, Javid announced he was leaving. The Health Secretary, who resigned as Chancellor in 2020 after a power struggle with No. 10, believes he can be a unifying figure as a future Tory leader.
Javid said in his resignation letter: “The vote of confidence last month has shown that a large number of our colleagues agree. It was a moment of humility, grip and realignment. However, I regret to say that I realize that this situation will not change under your leadership.”
Sunak’s allies insisted the double resignations were not coordinated, but her departure from cabinet now means Johnson has two potential rivals in the leadership in the back benches.
The former chancellor said he and Johnson had “fundamentally different approaches to the economy.” A planned joint business speech by the two men had proved impossible.
A ministerial ally of Sunak said the main difference between the outgoing chancellor and the prime minister is that “one is sane, the other a clown”.
Markets will be watching for signs of what the change in Chancellor will mean for future economic policy, including the possibility of a looser fiscal regime that could force the Bank of England to raise interest rates more quickly.
A number of Conservative MPs called on Johnson to resign Tuesday night. Next week the party will elect a new executive of the backbencher 1922 committee, which sets the rules for leadership contests.
An anti-Johnson nominee list is expected to push for a change in party rules to allow for another early no-confidence vote in the prime minister. Current rules state that such a vote can only take place every 12 months.
Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “After all the filth, scandal and failure, it is clear that this government is now collapsing.” Sir Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “A house of cards built on lies and fraud , collapses.”