Boris Johnson’s tumultuous three-year tenure drew to a close on Wednesday night after he was urged to resign by a delegation of his closest allies in Cabinet on a night of chaos at Downing Street.
With his prime ministerial post hanging by a thread, the British prime minister retaliated by sacking Michael Gove, one of the ministers who had told him to leave, in a sign that Johnson intended to go down fighting.
Johnson was warned that unless he resigned, there would be more cabinet resignations, followed by an inevitable humiliating Tory MP defeat in a no-confidence vote next week.
Gove was the first minister to ask Johnson to resign. A government insider said: “Michael essentially told him it’s time to go – it’s over.” A Number 10 source told the BBC that Gove was “a snake”.
Johnson told ministers he would keep fighting, effectively challenging them to resign. Simon Hart, Welsh secretary, was the only other cabinet minister to resign at 11pm on Wednesday in protest at Johnson’s intransigence.
But Suella Braverman, pro-Brexit Attorney General and Johnson ally, told ITV’s Peston there was “an overwhelming sense of desperation among Conservative MPs”, adding it was time for the Prime Minister to step down. She said she would run in any leadership election.
Despite growing calls for his resignation, the prime minister warned that his resignation would result in a chaotic Tory leadership battle amid an economic crisis.
“There would be three months where we would tear each other apart,” said a Johnson ally. “We would elect a leader without a mandate, which would prompt the opposition to demand an election that the Conservatives would lose.”
Johnson’s power waned over the course of a dramatic day when more than 40 governments resigned and many more Tory MPs denounced his character and integrity.
It ended with the Prime Minister being confronted at Downing Street by once-loyal Cabinet ministers – including newly appointed Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi – and told to step down gracefully. “The game is over,” said a minister.
Even Priti Patel, the home secretary closely associated with Johnson’s tough immigration policies, told him that sentiment in the party was tilted sharply against him and that government insiders said he should go.
However, Downing Street insiders said Johnson would not step down, citing his 2019 electoral mandate and adding that he would fill vacancies left by resigning ministers. However, Whitehall sources told the Financial Times that some job offers from Tory MPs have been turned down.
Meanwhile, Johnson told ministers he would present a new economic plan, including offering tax cuts and more deregulation, in a joint speech with Zahawi next week.
After months of criticism of Johnson for his leadership and integrity – which focused on his handling of the Partygate affair – the prime minister’s authority has rapidly deteriorated.
The final straw for many was Johnson’s untrue account of what he knew of the past sexual misconduct of Chris Pincher, whom he appointed Deputy Chief Whip in February and who fell out of favor last week after getting two men drunk at a private club had groped.
Sajid Javid, who stepped down as health secretary on Tuesday, questioned Johnson’s “truth and integrity” and deplored the fact that ministers would be sent out to defend positions that “do not stand up to scrutiny”. In a powerful resignation speech, he told MPs: “Enough is enough.”
Many other ministers and Tory MPs have reached the same conclusion and Chief Whip Chris Heaton-Harris was among those who told Johnson he was now losing a vote of confidence that could take place early next week.
Grant Shapps, the transport secretary who has advised Johnson on parliamentary arithmetic in the past, warned he had “little chance” of winning the vote and should resign gracefully.
Elections to the Tory 1922 backbench executive committee are next Monday, with expectations that the new team will change party rules to allow for an immediate vote of confidence.
The Prime Minister cut a diminished figure during Question Time in the House of Commons, where he insisted he would “carry on” – but was all but silenced by Conservative MPs behind him.
Johnson, who became prime minister less than three years ago, insisted he secured a “enormous mandate” from voters in the December 2019 election.
But ministerial resignations piled up throughout the day, raising questions as to whether Johnson would be able to find enough Tory MPs willing to fill the remaining vacancies.
Loyal ministers including Shapps, Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, and Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis later told Johnson to stop before things got worse.
Nadine Dorries, culture secretary and ultra-loyalist, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, Brexit minister for opportunities, are said to have been urged by government officials to keep fighting.
On Wednesday night, Johnson was in talks with his closest advisers at Downing Street as his position as Prime Minister hung by a thread.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labor leader, appeared to acknowledge Johnson’s departure was a foregone conclusion and attacked his potential successors as “a Z-list cast of nodding dogs”.
A member of the 1922 Executive said lawmakers wanted a leadership contest to start as soon as possible in order to have a new leader to replace Johnson by the fall.