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Ministers resign as Boris Johnson struggles to keep grip on power

Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for Prime Minister’s Questions (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for Prime Minister’s Questions (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Fourteen ministers resigned as Boris Johnson haemorrhaged support on Wednesday, leaving his position as Prime Minister in grave doubt.

The action came as reports suggested Cabinet minister Michael Gove had privately told Mr Johnson it was time for him to go.

Mr Johnson did not deny that report when questioned by MPs but said “of course” he would still be Prime Minister on Thursday.

The mass resignation of ministers, along with a string of parliamentary aides, came after Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid quit their Cabinet posts on Tuesday evening.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson said the “colossal mandate” he had been handed by voters in 2019 means he should keep going despite the “difficult circumstances” he faces.

But Mr Javid’s resignation statement in the House laid bare the scale of the problems facing the Prime Minister – and he challenged other Cabinet ministers to consider their positions.

The Prime Minister stayed in the Commons chamber as former health secretary Mr Javid set out the reasons for his resignation, saying Mr Johnson was not going to change and “enough is enough”.

Mr Javid said: “Treading the tightrope between loyalty and integrity has become impossible in recent months.

“I will never risk losing my integrity.”

He said “the problem starts at the top and I believe that is not going to change”.

In a message to Cabinet ministers who decided not to quit, he said: “Not doing something is an active decision.

“I’m deeply concerned about how the next generation will see the Conservative Party on our current course.

“It is incumbent on all of us to set high standards for ourselves and to take action when they are not met by others.”

Communities Secretary Mr Gove, who has not resigned, was reported by the Mail + to have told Mr Johnson that he should go.

But Mr Johnson told MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions: “The job of a Prime Minister in difficult circumstances when he has been handed a colossal mandate is to keep going, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Later, at the Liaison Committee, he was directly asked whether Mr Gove had told him to go.

“I’m here to talk about what the Government is doing,” Mr Johnson said.

“I’m not going to give a running commentary on politic events.”

The 14 ministers to quit on Wednesday were Will Quince, Robin Walker, John Glen, Victoria Atkins, Jo Churchill, Stuart Andrew, Kemi Badenoch, Neil O’Brien, Alex Burghart, Lee Rowley, Julia Lopez, Mims Davies, Rachel Maclean and Mike Freer.

In their resignation letters:

– Ex-children and families minister Mr Quince said he could not accept being sent out to defend the Prime Minister on television with inaccurate information over the Chris Pincher row.

– Former justice minister Ms Atkins told Mr Johnson: “I can no longer pirouette around our fractured values. We can and must do better than this.”

– Ms Churchill quit as environment minister, saying: “Recent events have shown integrity, competence, and judgment are all essential to the role of Prime Minister, while a jocular self-serving approach is bound to have its limitations.”

– Ms Maclean, who announced her resignation as a Home Office minister while Mr Johnson was giving evidence to the Liaison Committee of senior MPs, said the Prime Minister should “resign for the good of the country and our party”.

– Mr Freer said he was quitting as equalities minister, complaining about “creating an atmosphere of hostility for LGBT+ people”, adding “I can no longer defend policies I fundamentally disagree with”.

Laura Trott, Felicity Buchan, Selaine Saxby, Claire Coutinho, David Johnston, Duncan Baker, Craig Williams and Mark Logan resigned as ministerial aides, while Fay Jones said she would quit on Thursday unless the Prime Minister goes.

MPs on the backbenches were also turning away from the Prime Minister.

Education Select Committee chairman Rob Halfon said he would back a change in leadership, criticising not only a “real loss of integrity” but also “a failure of policy”.

Transport Select Committee chairman Huw Merriman told the BBC Mr Johnson should resign if he has “any dignity left”.

Former Cabinet ministers Robert Jenrick and Liam Fox withdrew their support.

Mr Quince was one of the ministers sent on the airwaves to defend Mr Johnson’s position over Mr Pincher, who quit as deputy chief whip after allegedly assaulting two men while drunk at London’s Carlton Club.

The Prime Minister later acknowledged he had previously been informed of allegations against Mr Pincher dating back to 2019 and said he regretted keeping him in government beyond that point.

Mr Quince said he had received a “sincere apology” from Mr Johnson for being sent out with an “inaccurate” briefing about the Prime Minister’s knowledge of events.

The Prime Minister’s authority had already been damaged by a confidence vote which saw 41% of his own MPs withdraw their support in June.

The loss of crunch by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton later that month triggered the resignation of party chairman Oliver Dowden, while there is still lingering resentment over coronavirus lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street.

The Prime Minister’s fate may ultimately lie with backbench MPs if the Tory 1922 Committee’s rules are changed to allow another confidence vote within 12 months.

The committee’s executive was meeting on Wednesday in Westminster.

In a sign that discontent stretches across the party, Lee Anderson, one of the MPs elected in 2019 in Red Wall seats who largely owe their political careers to the Prime Minister, said he too had lost faith in the leader.

The Ashfield MP pointed to the row over Mr Pincher’s appointment and said: “Integrity should always come first and sadly this has not been the case over the past few days.”

New Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi hinted at reversing a planned rise in corporation tax as part of the effort to win over Tory MPs.

Mr Zahawi sought to reassure Conservatives that “nothing is off the table” when questioned about possibly scrapping the planned increase in corporation tax from 19% to 25% in April 2023.

“I know that boards around the world, when they make investment decisions, they’re long term, and the one tax they can compare globally is corporation tax,” he told Sky News.

“I want to make sure that we are as competitive as we can be whilst maintaining fiscal discipline.”