After weathering numerous storms that would have sunk others, Boris Johnson’s time as prime minister comes to an ignoble end, mired in scandal and having lost the support of nearly all his MPs.
The resignation didn’t come out of nowhere – Johnson was already losing support from his party, narrowly surviving a confidence vote in early June. Just two weeks later, things were looking even grimmer, after losing two byelections in supposedly safe seats.
But the events of the past week have been the final straw. Here’s how it played out.
1. The Pincher scandal
What began June 30 as Conservative MP Chris Pincher’s resignation after drinking “far too much” at a London private members’ club the night before turned out to be much more serious – Pincher was accused of sexually assaulting two men.
Having shrugged-off previous scandals, being accused of lying about what he knew (and when) about his deputy chief whip’s behaviour was the nail in the coffin for Boris Johnson. Any goodwill and room to manoeuvre had run out.
The government’s initial line was that Pincher recognised he had done wrong so would keep his job as an MP and face no further action. But Pincher had a history of this sort of behaviour. Behind the scenes, MPs were unhappy – and many asked questions about how much Johnson knew before he promoted Pincher to a position of power within the party. Just like the lockdown parties, Johnson initially denied knowing anything before evidence began to emerge to the contrary.
For several days, the government insisted Johnson had not been aware of any specific allegations when appointing him as deputy chief whip, but later had to backtrack, stating that Johnson had indeed known, but had simply “forgotten”. Such tactics worked well in the past, but this time, people weren’t buying it.
Days later, Lord McDonald, crossbench peer and a former top civil servant, accused the government of continuing to lie about the Pincher timeline – the first cabinet resignations followed soon after.
2. Wave of resignations
When health secretary Sajid Javid and chancellor Rishi Sunak resigned, it seemed the writing was on the wall for Johnson. But given his “Teflon” track record, many wondered whether this time would be any different. By the next morning, dozens more MPs had resigned official positions, and the letters kept coming.
Johnson tried to brush it off, insisting he had a personal mandate from his 2019 general election success. He tried to replace the vacancies, but there were just too many. After surviving a party confidence vote in June, the arithmetic now made it clear that he wouldn’t weather another one.
It seems that many senior MPs had become tired of expending their own political credibility and capital defending Johnson from scandal after scandal. It remains to be seen whether finally turning their backs on him will save their careers, or if they’ve already missed the boat. For all the current talk about the importance of honesty and integrity, the fact is that until very recently, numerous MPs and ministers were outwardly supportive of Johnson no matter how disingenuous that required them to be.
3. Cabinet showdown
Despite the growing pressure to go, Johnson insisted on staying. After a meeting of the 1922 committee, an influential group of backbench Conservative MPs, its chair Sir Graham Brady paid Johnson a visit and urged him to step aside, as did other senior MPs. While the continued backing of people like culture secretary and core supporter Nadine Dorries was hardly surprising, the fact that the home secretary Priti Patel sided with those who thought he should go likely made his position more untenable. His new chancellor, Nadhim Zahawi, was also backing those telling Johnson to leave.
By Thursday morning, Johnson was still defiant. He had fired Michael Gove – the levelling-up secretary and was attempting to fill vacancies. But the resignations were coming faster than he could replace them – including Michelle Donelan –who Johnson had appointed education secretary just two days before. Whatever happened behind the scenes, Johnson ultimately realised he could no longer continue.
4. Resignation speech
Johnson’s resignation speech was heavy on distortions, and light on remorse – other than for the fact that he was leaving the job he had spent so long scheming to acquire. Johnson tried to present himself as a successful prime minister brought down by the whims of his party following their “herd instinct”.
He claimed he “got Brexit done”, despite currently being involved in a major dispute with the EU over the deal he signed in 2019 and now wants to change. He praised his handling of the pandemic, and spoke of his “levelling-up” agenda with a vagueness that neatly summed up the unclear and non-existent policies relating to it.
Johnson either does not believe, or does not want to admit, that he is unpopular with voters. In his view, he was given a personal mandate by 14 million people in 2019, and his ousting is against their wishes. The simple reality is that he is a populist who has become unpopular. While his core support will back him come what may, Johnson has become an electoral liability and is dragging his party down with him. Despite his best efforts, Johnson will not be remembered in the manner he tried to portray himself in his speech.
5. Drawn-out departure
Johnson may have resigned as party leader, but he is not yet gone. His intention is to stay on as a “caretaker” prime minister until a replacement is formally chosen, but others want him gone immediately and someone else appointed. Ultimately, the decision will rest with the 1922 committee, who will set the rules and timetable for the leadership contest.
Opinions are divided as to whether he should stay on until a new leader is selected or whether he should step aside for a caretaker while the leadership contest takes place. Some claim that staying in post a little longer is just another attempt by Johnson to ride things out until they calm down, a tactic that has worked so many times before.
But it might prove difficult to un-resign. If nothing else, it might allow Johnson to remain prime minister long enough to have outlasted his predecessor Theresa May, saving him some embarrassment. Others are concerned about any further damage he could do to the party in the interim and want to distance themselves from him as soon as possible.