Boris Johnson Fights Back Against Two Cabinet Resignations

LONDON — Boris Johnson is digging in as U.K. prime minister, after the resignation of two of the most senior members of his government brought his premiership to the brink on another febrile day in Westminster.

The prime minister appointed Nadhim Zahawi as his new Chancellor of the Exchequer, replacing Rishi Sunak, while Steve Barclay takes Sajid Javid’s former role as health secretary. Michelle Donelan was named education secretary following Zahawi’s promotion.

The rapid appointments are part of Johnson’s fightback and an attempt to shift the narrative after the devastating blow of Sunak and Javid quitting in quick succession late Tuesday. Yet he’s by no means out of the woods, with rebel Conservatives still seeking ways to oust him over a series of scandals that have eroded his standing.

Continue reading: Boris Johnson Survived the No-Confidence Vote. Boris Johnson may stay around for a while

On Wednesday, he faces Prime Minister’s Questions and then what could be a grueling session of Parliament’s powerful Liaison Committee, where lawmakers will probe him on “integrity in politics and the rule of law.”

“The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously,” Sunak wrote in his resignation letter. “I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning.”

Johnson is the subject of a lot of Tory anger.

Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, speaks at a press conference after the last day of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit (NATO), in Madrid, Spain on June 30, 2022.

Valeria Mongelli/Bloomberg

The Freshest Scandal

Following newspaper claims that Pincher had groped two people, the Tory MP Chris Pincher quit as a government whip. Johnson was hurt by the news. He had appointed Pincher in February to this role to boost his weakening support.

However, the crisis got worse when Pincher’s allegations grew over the weekend. Downing Street was then forced to change its position regarding exactly who Johnson knew when.

With Johnson’s press office battling accusations of lying, Johnson was forced to make a televised address to acknowledge it had been a “mistake” to promote Pincher in February—two years after being told of a complaint against him.

While Pincher has denied allegations of specific incidents, he said in his resignation letter he’d “embarrassed” himself and “caused upset” to others. He and his office haven’t replied to repeated requests for comment.

“It was a mistake and I apologize for it,” Johnson said of Pincher’s promotion. “In hindsight it was the wrong thing to do. I want to make absolutely clear that there’s no place in this government for anybody who is predatory or who abuses their position of power.”

This scandal is directly related to the larger narrative Johnson has about himself that has undermined Johnson’s standing within the party less than three year after Johnson led the Tories in a crushing general election win.

The Angry Tories

Johnson’s attempt to rescue a Tory colleague who had broken the Parliament ethics rules was viewed as a failure by many rebels. Johnson’s own approval rating has taken a hammering over “partygate,” and the Tories lost two Parliament seats on a single day last month as voters punished the government in the middle of a cost of living crisis.

The Tory rebels called on the cabinet’s top ministers to step in after Johnson was narrowly defeated by a confidence vote. On Tuesday, Sunak and Javid granted that wish—though the domino effect they may have hoped for in the cabinet failed to materialize.

After the resignation of 2 senior cabinet ministers in July 2022, Nadhim Zhawi left 10 Downing Street.

Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP

Johnson made clear he’s not planning to make it easy for the rebels by resigning, and the promotion of Zahawi, who made his name as vaccines minister during the pandemic, will be seen as a reward for both loyalty and competence. Johnson’s allies were also out in force after the resignations.

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

Wounded Johnson

Even so, Tuesday’s events leave Johnson dramatically weakened. Sunak’s loss comes at a crucial time for the economy. Households are experiencing the greatest squeeze on their incomes in generations, while strikes have broken out across many sectors of the workforce.

Two of Johnson’s signature policies have also foundered. Six years ago, Johnson convinced Britons that they should vote to exit the European Union. The economic argument for this decision has failed to pay off. He also made “leveling up” the country his defining economic agenda, but failed to draw up a coherent set of policies to carry it out beyond long-established infrastructure investment.

Johnson, who is now wounded, will have to work harder to get the Tory factions on his side as he tackles the U.K. problems. Ultimately, his survival remains a numbers game, with the rebels striving to gain a majority they need to make his position untenable—perhaps most likely by changing party rules to allow another confidence vote.

It was clear that the Sunak/Javid resignations had further galvanized rebels. Alex Chalk, the solicitor general, resigned late Tuesday. Jonathan Gullis was a vocal supporter of Johnson at the House of Commons and quit his position as ministerial assistant. Virginia Crosbie was a private secretary in the Parliamentary House of Commons.

“I know you love this country,” Crosbie said in her resignation letter. “You can serve it one last time by leaving office.”

—With assistance from Philip Aldrick and Andrew Atkinson

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