Months of mounting tension within the Tory party came to a head last night when two chief ministers, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid, decided they had had enough.
Boris Johnson has been plagued by increasingly inconsequential scandals since November, when the number 10 tried to break the rules against sleaze to save veteran MP Owen Paterson.
However, doubts were raised about Johnson’s premiership after the Conservatives lost two crucial by-elections, leading to the resignation of party chairman Oliver Dowden, and accusations raised against MP Chris Pincher.
Last night, both the chancellor and the health secretary decided that they could no longer support a prime minister who they felt was degrading political office.
Their interventions, barely nine minutes apart, came after a senior official made a rare public intervention to question the veracity of the Downing Street operation.
Sir Simon McDonald, a 40-year-old civil servant, had revealed that an internal investigation was carried out in 2019 into allegations of sexual harassment by Chris Pincher. The inquest upheld a complaint against Conservative MP Mr Pincher and Mr Johnson was briefed in person on “the initiation and outcome of the inquiry”.
Sir McDonald pointed out that the reports in Number 10 that Mr. Johnson did not know about these details of Mr. Pincher’s behavior were not true.
It was this revelation that pushed Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid over the edge.
At 6:02 p.m., Sajid Javid resigned as health secretary, criticizing Johnson’s leadership and saying “the public rightly expects government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously.”
In a veiled critique, Javid told Johnson: “The tone you set as a leader and the values you represent are reflected in your colleagues, your party, and ultimately the country.”
He said the Conservative Party “may not have always been popular, but we have been competent to act in the national interest.”
“Sadly, under the current circumstances, the public is concluding that we are now neither of us,” Javid concluded.
Nine minutes later, at 6:11 pm, Rishi Sunak resigned as chancellor. In his letter, Mr. Sunak echoed Mr. Javid’s comments, saying: “The public rightly expects that the government will be conducted properly, competently and seriously.”
He said the government needs to be honest with the public about the economic difficulties ahead. “Our people know that if something is too good to be true, then it’s not true,” Sunak said.
He added that in preparation for his joint speech with Mr. Johnson on the economy next week “it has become clear to me that our approaches are fundamentally too different.”
Next to resign was Dr. Andrew Murrison MP, the PM’s trade envoy to Morocco. He referred directly to Lord McDonald’s letter questioning the honesty of the Downing Street operation.
“The last straw in the rolling chaos of the last six months has been the inevitable implication of Lord McDonald’s letter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards this morning. Others must balance, to the best of their ability, the continued enjoyment of their patronage with their personal sense of decency, honor and integrity, but I can no longer,” Dr. Murrison wrote.
At around 7:28 pm, Conservative Party Vice President Bim Afolami resigned live on air.
Mr Afolami said talk about tv that Mr. Johnson should resign from No. 10 and said he “cannot serve under the prime minister” after months of turmoil. “I just don’t think the prime minister already has, not only my support, but he no longer has, I don’t think, the support of the party or, indeed, the country,” he said.
“I think for that reason I should resign.”
Ultra-loyalist MP Jonathan Gullis was the next to resign, this time from his role as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
“I feel like for too long we have been more focused on dealing with our reputational damage rather than providing for the people of this country and providing opportunity for all, which is why I went into politics,” she wrote.
MP Saqib Bhatti resigned from his position as Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) at 7:51 p.m. Like Mr. Sunak and Mr. Javid, Mr. Bhatti referred to “standards in public life” as of “maximum importance”.
“The events of the last few months have undermined public confidence in all of us,” he said.
Nicola Richards MP, another PPS, resigned saying she did not want to be “biased by bad judgment that I do not wish to be associated with”.
“I am also loyal to the Conservative Party, which is currently unrecognizable to me. I think something needs to change,” she said.
The next resignation was particularly brutal. At 8:58 p.m. MP Virginia Crosbie, who had worked in the Wales office, resigned saying “the sheer number of allegations of impropriety and illegality” was making Johnson’s premiership untenable.
In a searing letter, Crosbie said Johnson risked “irrevocably damaging this government.”
He referenced the Chris Pincher scandal, saying: “The inaccurate and contradictory statements about what you knew about the former deputy director’s conduct before you appointed him were the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
She continued: “I have no idea what is going on in Downing Street, but it seems that he is either ill-advised or unable to change or reform the dysfunctional operation at the center of the government he runs.”
Theo Clarke, the prime minister’s trade envoy to Kenya, decided he had had enough at 10:02 pm She also made reference to the Chris Pincher scandal in her resignation letter.
“I take allegations of sexual misconduct very seriously,” he said. “Knowing that he chose to elevate a colleague to a position of Pastoral Care of MPs, in full knowledge of his own misdeeds, shows a serious lack of judgment and care for his parliamentary party.”
The resignation of Attorney General Alex Chalk raised last night’s list to 10.
He cited “the cumulative effect of the Owen Paterson debacle, Partygate and now the handling of the former whip boss’s resignation,” saying that public trust in government had been “irretrievably broken.”