LONDON – His support is crumbling, his government in disarray, his alibi exhausted, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson frantically tried to salvage his position on Wednesday, even as a delegation of cabinet colleagues went to Downing Street to plead with their scandalized leader to step down.
More than 30 ministers or government aides resigned, several Conservative Party lawmakers urged Mr. Johnson to step down, and he received a withered reception in Parliament, where backbenchers mocked, “Hi, Boris!” as he walked away from a side door after a ruthless barbecue about his handling of the party’s latest sex and bullying scandal.
On a day of rapid development, Johnson vowed to keep fighting, insisting he have a mandate from voters to lead Britain into its post-Brexit future, even as rebel ministers tried to dislodge him.
On Wednesday night, Mr. Johnson fired one of his closest advisors, Michael Gove, from a powerful economic position in the cabinet. Earlier in the day, the BBC reported that Mr. Gove had urged Mr. Johnson to step down.
That moment of drama was followed by the late night resignation of another government minister, Simon Hart, the Welsh secretary.
Elsewhere in Westminster, lawmakers considered – and then postponed, at least for a few days – a change in party rules that would allow for another vote of confidence, perhaps next week, against the prime minister, who survived that vote only one. month ago.
There was a growing consensus that, however events unfolded in the hours or days that followed, the curtain was falling on the Boris Johnson era. Less than three years after entering Downing Street, before riding a wave of pro-Brexit passion to win a landslide election victory, Mr. Johnson seemed cornered: a protean political player finally out of the game.
This does not mean that the end will come quickly or gracefully. Mr. Johnson resisted the cabinet delegation’s appeals for resignation. He did not rule out calling early elections to throw his fate to the British voters. Such a move would need the consent of Queen Elizabeth II, which could precipitate a political crisis.
“The job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances, when he has been given a colossal mandate, is to move forward,” Johnson said in a gloomy-looking parliament, rejecting yet another call for his resignation.
Opposition leader Keir Starmer dismissed the issue, criticizing Johnson and government ministers who have yet to leave the prime minister after a seemingly endless stream of scandals. The final chapter of this drama began on Tuesday with the resignations of two senior ministers.
“Anyone who quits now, after defending all of this, doesn’t have an iota of integrity,” said Starmer, the Labor Party leader, staring menacingly at Mr. Johnson from table to table. “Isn’t this the first recorded case of the sinking of the ship fleeing the rats?”
Despite all the drama in Parliament, the real action on Wednesday took place invisibly, where they maneuvered the dwindling gang of Mr. Johnson’s supporters and the growing gang of opponents. Mr. Johnson’s dismissal of Mr. Gove was particularly blamed, as in 2016 Mr. Gove derailed Mr. Johnson’s first offer for Tory party leadership by unexpectedly entering the contest himself.
The latest chapter of the crisis began on Tuesday when two high-level cabinet ministers abruptly resigned: Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, and Health Secretary, Sajid Javid. The trigger was Mr. Johnson’s handling of a case involving Chris Pincher, a Conservative lawmaker who admitted he was drunk in a private members’ club in London where he is said to have groped two men.
Given the speed with which Mr. Johnson’s government was unraveling, many conservative lawmakers believe that Mr. Johnson needs to be replaced quickly to mitigate electoral damage to the party. Even before the latest scandal broke, opinion polls showed that Conservatives were far behind Labor.
The dilemma for the party’s leading figures was whether to allow a quick vote of no confidence against Mr. Johnson. Under existing party rules, there cannot be another such vote until one year after the last one, next June.
But the leaders of the 1922 Committee, which represents conservative reserve lawmakers, were willing to rip their rule book first: when Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May won a confidence vote in 2018 but then failed. to carry his Brexit plan through a blocked Parliament.
According to Graham Brady, who chairs the committee, the proposed rule change was in his pocket when he went to meet the prime minister, but he never showed it to Ms May, who agreed to step aside.
In an accelerated scenario this time around, lawmakers would hold the vote of confidence before the summer break. If Mr. Johnson lost, they would have moved quickly to select two prominent candidates to replace him as party leader and prime minister. The two contenders would then run in a final competition in which the selection is by party members.
Tobias Ellwood, Johnson’s former minister and critic, said he had reservations about changing the rules, but believed it would happen if the prime minister refused to walk away on his own. He liked a change of leader for a trip to the dentist.
“We put it off,” he said. “You have to go to the dentist and do it: getting rid of Boris is that trip to the dentist.”
Moving quickly, Ellwood said, would allow the party to use the summer vacation to conduct elections for leadership and offer the new prime minister a platform at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in the fall. This seemed increasingly likely as the situation worsened for Mr. Johnson on Wednesday, with over 30 subs and ministerial aides submitting their resignations.
At one point, five undersecretaries resigned with the same letter of resignation, including Equality and Local Government Minister, Kemi Badenoch, and Neil O’Brien, a minister responsible for Johnson’s “level up” policy. prosperity across the country.
Downing Street was unable to provide a timeline for replacing others who said they were no longer able to serve Mr. Johnson, including Treasury Minister John Glen and his Home Office colleague. Victoria Atkins.
Mr. Johnson had moved quickly to announce the replacement of Mr. Sunak and Mr. Javid, signaling that he intended to try to stabilize the government. And he did his best to project a provocative image.
Faced with the prospect of a new vote of confidence, Johnson may instead opt to hold a general election, even if the outlook for his party is bleak. The prime minister has repeatedly reminded critics of his party’s landslide victory in 2019, when he promised to “get Brexit done” and beat a divided Labor party.
Constitutional experts argue that the queen may refuse to grant an election on the grounds that the Conservatives still have a sizeable parliamentary majority. However, turning down such a request could be difficult for Buckingham Palace, which prides itself on standing above politics. Furthermore, the Labor Party is eager for elections and would appreciate a fight against a discredited prime minister.
Above all, however, are Mr. Johnson’s Houdini instincts. Over the past three years, he has survived multiple investigations, a police penalty and a vote of no confidence among conservative lawmakers. He may believe he can escape once again.
“Unlike most leaders, he doesn’t care how much damage he does as he walks out the door,” said Jonathan Powell, who served as chief of staff for a former prime minister, Tony Blair. “There is no one in our history who has had this kind of nature. Our system is not built for something like that. “