Every week seems to bring new turmoil for the ever-beleaguered Boris Johnson. This time, the turmoil will probably be terminal.
On Tuesday evening (5 July), he faced the biggest and possibly decisive challenge to his premiership when Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, two of his most senior ministers, resigned.
They did so in classic British political style by releasing resignation letters that accused the UK Prime Minister of lacking integrity and seriousness and of being incompetent. Sunak wrote pointedly that the government should be run “properly, competently and seriously”.
In the following hours, Johnson rallied his remaining ministers and replaced Sunak with former Education Minister Nadim Zahawi and Javid with former Brexit Minister Steve Barclay. For the moment, Johnson is prepared to cling on, but the coup may only be starting. Johnson’s officials expect more resignations, albeit among junior ministers, to follow on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, a growing group of his Conservative MPs say that they have no confidence in him, including more than ten that supported him in last month’s confidence vote. This time, few of Johnson’s allies expect him to survive for more than days or weeks, though he will probably have to be dragged out of Downing Street kicking and screaming.
The latest scandal is, like the long-running row over lockdown-breaking parties held in Downing Street, entirely self-inflicted and fundamentally about Johnson’s personality rather than policy.
Chris Pincher, a government whip, resigned last week after allegations that he had groped two people in the Carlton Club, the private members’ club for Conservatives – and high temple of Toryism – in Mayfair.
After reports emerged that complaints about similar behaviour had been made to Johnson when Pincher was a junior foreign office minister under Johnson and ran the department during Theresa May’s government, Johnson’s office denied them, only to backtrack after the chief Foreign Office civil servant at the time publicly confirmed that Johnson had been personally briefed about the complaints.
On Tuesday, Johnson told the BBC that he had forgotten that he had been told. Johnson’s is also reported to have commented ‘Pincher by name, Pincher by nature’, remarks which his office has not denied.
Like Partygate and Johnson’s handling of the Brexit process, particularly the Northern Ireland protocol, Pinchergate falls into the pattern of behaviour that has run through Johnson’s career: lies or half-truths followed by obfuscation and cover-up, followed by a half-hearted apology.
A snap poll by YouGov on Tuesday found that 69% of respondents want Johnson to go, compared to just 13% wanting him to stay as Prime Minister.
Back in 2015, the campaign of then Prime Minister David Cameron – remember him? – urged Britons to pick ‘stability’ under him over ‘chaos’ if Labour’s Ed Miliband formed a government. The fallout from Brexit is not the main cause of Johnson’s difficulties but should he be ousted, that would be the third Conservative government in six years to be toppled from within without a public vote.
In the process, Westminster has become a theatre that, unlike the West End, offers its shows for free.
It is impossible to remember that Tory slogan without a wary smile.