LONDON, United Kingdom — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was clinging to power Thursday, having defiantly responded to calls from his loyalists to step down by sacking a minister and former top ally.
More than 40 ministers and aides, including three cabinet members, have quit the government since late Tuesday, with resignations continuing to trickle in overnight.
The Conservative leader was confronted at various points on Wednesday by members of his cabinet telling him it was time to go, local media said.
His reaction was to fire Communities Secretary Michael Gove, reportedly the first to tell him that he must resign for the good of the Tory party and country, with a source close to Johnson telling the BBC that Gove was “a snake”.
Gove was Johnson’s right-hand man in Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, but dramatically chose to run against him for the Conservative leadership that same year, and again in 2019.
The Sun newspaper said Johnson had told colleagues they would have to “dip (their) hands in blood” to push him out of office.
Allies of the prime minister said he was going to “fight on”, with his parliamentary private secretary (PPS) James Duddridge telling Sky News Johnson was in a “buoyant mood”.
But on Thursday morning, the front pages of British newspapers highlighted the precarious position the scandal-hit leader was in.
The normally staunchly pro-Conservative Daily Express spoke of Johnson’s “last stand”, with the Daily Telegraph calling Johnson “mortally wounded”, and The Times saying Johnson was “fight(ing) for his life”.
On the other end of the political spectrum, The Guardian condemned Johnson as “desperate and deluded”.
– ‘No functioning government’ –
The shock resignations of finance chief Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid late Tuesday set off a chain of others.
They quit after Johnson apologised for appointing as deputy chief whip senior Conservative MP Chris Pincher, who was forced to step down following accusations he drunkenly groped two men.
Days of shifting explanations had followed Pincher’s resignation, with Downing Street at first denying Johnson knew of the prior allegations — a defence that collapsed after a former top civil servant said he was told in 2019 about another incident.
Tory critics said the Pincher affair had tipped many over the edge, sickened at having to defend what they saw as more lies by Johnson.
Johnson was confronted by members of his cabinet on Wednesday when he returned to Downing Street from a lengthy grilling by a parliamentary committee.
The delegation was said to include hardline interior minister Priti Patel and Nadhim Zahawi, who has barely been 24 hours in his new job as Sunak’s successor — though Johnson’s PPS Duddridge later denied Zahawi was there.
A third member of Johnson’s cabinet — Welsh Secretary Simon Hart — quit on Wednesday evening.
Later that night, a health minister and another PPS resigned, meaning at least 44 ministers and aides, mostly from more junior positions outside the cabinet, have stepped down in just over 24 hours.
Former head of Downing Street’s Policy Unit Camilla Cavendish told the BBC that Britain no longer had “a functioning government”.
The calls for Johnson to go persisted late into the evening.
Attorney General Suella Braverman told broadcaster ITV that while she wouldn’t resign, “the balance has tipped now in favour of saying… it’s time to go”.
She also said she would stand in a leadership contest.
– ‘Bye, Boris’ –
A culture of scandal has dogged Johnson for months, including lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street.
The prime minister, who received a police fine for the Covid lockdown-breaking “Partygate” affair, faces a parliamentary probe into whether he lied to MPs about the revelations.
Johnson only narrowly survived a no-confidence vote among Conservative MPs a month ago, which ordinarily would mean he could not be challenged again for another year.
But the influential “1922 Committee” of non-ministerial Tory MPs is reportedly seeking to change the rules, with its executive committee announcing Wednesday it will elect a fresh lineup of members next week.
Johnson’s refusal to resign means he will likely face a second confidence vote.
In parliament on Wednesday, Johnson insisted the country needed “stable government, loving each other as Conservatives, getting on with our priorities”.
But addressing MPs, Javid urged other ministers to resign.
“The problem starts at the top, and I believe that is not going to change,” he told a hushed House of Commons.
“And that means that it is for those of us in that position — who have responsibility — to make that change.”
Cries of “bye, Boris” echoed around the chamber at the end of his speech.