Boris Johnson’s position as prime minister of the United Kingdom was teetering on the edge on Wednesday, after more than 30 members of his government resigned in protest against a series of ethics scandals.
On Tuesday, Johnson’s finance minister Rishi Sunak and health minister Sajid Javid resigned within minutes of each other. “The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously,” Sunak said in his resignation letter. In the following 24 hours, 32 additional members of government followed their resignations.
An alleged sexual abuse scandal was what triggered the resignation. Chris Pincher, a senior member of Johnson’s government, was forced to resign on July 1 after allegations he had groped two men on a drunken night at a private members’ club. Multiple other sexual harassment claims against Pincher were made in the media after his resignation. Johnson’s spokesperson initially said the prime minister had not been aware of allegations made about Pincher at the time he had been appointed to government in 2019. Johnson was forced backtrack when it became apparent that Johnson had been informed about one specific allegation prior to his appointment. There were reports that Johnson had also referred to the lawmaker as “Pincher by name, pincher by nature.”
This was just the latest scandal in a string of domestic scandals that have engulfed Johnson. Late 2021 and early 2022 revealed that the beleaguered prime minster and his associates attended numerous parties at his official residence at 10 Downing Street at a moment when rest of the nation was subject to strict COVID-19 lockdowns. Johnson was found to have broken the law—a first for a sitting prime minister—and fined by police for attending one of the parties. He later apologized to the Queen for another gathering that was held on the eve of her husband’s funeral.
Against many people’s expectations, Johnson survived the “partygate” scandal and eagerly stepped into a more statesmanlike role after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24. Johnson appeared unannounced in Kyiv twice and donated more than $2B to Ukraine’s military assistance, which is more than any other country, except for the United States.
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But back home, support for him and his party continued to ebb, with rising inflation and a constant drumbeat of “Tory sleaze.” One Conservative lawmaker was forced to resign after admitting watching pornography in parliament. A second was found guilty for sexually abusing an 18-year-old boy. In local elections held to replace them, opposition candidates won by large margins, leading increasing numbers of Johnson’s colleagues to ask whether he was leading their party to defeat at the next election. He narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in June—with more than 40% of his own lawmakers voting against him.
Under party rules, Johnson’s victory in that vote should have kept him safe in the post for 12 months. But as the resignations from Johnson’s government kept coming in on Wednesday, there were reports that there were not enough willing lawmakers to fill vacant government positions—as good a sign as any that he is running on borrowed time.
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