Boris Johnson hits back at two Cabinet resignations

LONDON — Boris Johnson is sinking as Britain’s prime minister, after the resignation of two of his most senior members of his government brought his post as prime minister to the brink on another feverish day in Westminster.

The Prime Minister has appointed Nadhim Zahawi as his new Chancellor of the Exchequer, replacing Rishi Sunak, while Steve Barclay takes over Sajid Javid’s former post as Health Secretary. Michelle Donelan was appointed Education Secretary following Zahawi’s promotion.

The snap nominations are part of Johnson’s fightback and an attempt to change the narrative after the devastating blow by Sunak and Javid who quit swiftly on Tuesday night. Yet he is by no means off the hook, with wayward conservatives still looking for ways to oust him over a series of scandals that have eroded his position.

Read more: Boris Johnson survived a vote of no confidence. He can stay a while

On Wednesday, he will face questions from the prime minister and then what could be a grueling session of parliament’s powerful Liaison Committee, where lawmakers will quiz him on “integrity in politics and the rule of law”.

“The public rightly expects government to be run properly, competently and earnestly,” Sunak wrote in his resignation. “I think these standards are worth defending and that’s why I’m stepping down.”

Tory anger at Johnson has been building for months over his conduct in office, including becoming the first sitting prime minister to break the law when he was fined for Downing’s illegal parties Street during the pandemic.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a press conference following the final day of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Madrid, Spain, June 30, 2022.

Valeria Mongelli/Bloomberg

New scandal

The latest row was sparked last week when Tory MP Chris Pincher resigned as government whip, or political enforcer, following newspaper allegations that he groped two men. It was detrimental to Johnson, who had promoted Pincher to the job in February in a bid to bolster his own faltering support.

Yet the crisis deepened as new allegations against Pincher emerged over the weekend, and Downing Street was forced to change its stance on exactly what Johnson knew and when.

As Johnson’s press office battled accusations of lying, Johnson was forced into a televised address acknowledging Pincher’s promotion had been a ‘mistake’ in February, two years after being told about a complaint against him.

Although Pincher denied allegations of specific incidents, he said in his resignation letter that he had “embarrassed” himself and “upset” others. He and his office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“It was a mistake and I apologize for that,” Johnson said of Pincher’s promotion. “In hindsight, it was not the right thing to do. I want it to be absolutely clear that there is no place in this government for anyone who is predatory or abuses their position of power.

The scandal plays directly into Johnson’s larger narrative of undermining his standing in the party, less than three years after leading the Tories to a landslide victory in the general election.

Angry Tories

For many rebels, the rot began when Johnson launched an ultimately botched effort to rescue a Tory colleague convicted of breaking Parliament’s ethics rules. Johnson’s own approval rating took a hammer blow on ‘partygate’, and the Tories lost two seats in Parliament in a single day last month as voters punished the government amid a cost crisis of life.

After narrowly failing to oust Johnson in a confidence vote last month, Tory rebels had called on senior cabinet ministers to take matters into their own hands. On Tuesday, Sunak and Javid granted that wish, although the domino effect they might have hoped for within the firm did not materialize.

Boris Johnson hits back at two Cabinet resignations

Nadhim Zahawi leaves 10 Downing Street, London, following the resignation of two senior cabinet ministers on July 5, 2022.

Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP

Johnson has made it clear that he does not plan to make it easier for the rebels by stepping down, and the promotion of Zahawi, who has made a name for himself as vaccine minister during the pandemic, will be seen as a reward for both for his loyalty and competence. Johnson’s allies were also out in force after the quits.

“Chancellors are resigning, but that doesn’t necessarily have an effect on the government,” Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said in an interview with Sky News. “Losing chancellors is something that happens.”

Johnson injured

Even so, Tuesday’s events leave Johnson significantly weakened. Sunak’s loss comes at a critical time for the economy, with households grappling with the worst strain on living standards in a generation and strikes breaking out across many sectors of the workforce.

Two of Johnson’s signature policies also foundered. Six years after he successfully urged Britons to vote to leave the European Union, the economic arguments for doing so have failed to bear fruit. He also made “upgrading” the country his defining economic agenda, but failed to craft a cohesive set of policies to carry it out beyond long-established infrastructure investments.

An injured Johnson will now find it even harder to keep the various factions of his Tory party on his side as he tries to solve the problems facing the UK. Ultimately, his survival remains a numbers game, with the rebels scrambling to get the majority they need to make his position untenable – perhaps most likely by changing party rules to allow another vote of trust.

There were signs that the resignations of Sunak and Javid further galvanized the rebels. Late Tuesday, Alex Chalk resigned as solicitor general, and even Jonathan Gullis, a staunch Johnson supporter in the House of Commons, resigned as ministerial aide. Other junior government figures did the same, including private parliamentary secretary Virginia Crosbie.

“I know you love this country,” Crosbie said in his resignation letter. “You can serve him one last time when leaving office.”

—With help from Philip Aldrick and Andrew Atkinson

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