Boris Johnson refused to resign on Wednesday night and instead fired Michael Gove, despite being confronted by cabinet ministers, mass resignations from major banks and the threat of another leadership vote.
The prime minister came close to being ousted as more front bench strikes brought the total of Conservative MPs resigning from official positions in the past two days to more than 40.
In one-on-one meetings with Johnson on Wednesday night, a number of cabinet ministers told him personally that he had lost his party’s support and should consider resigning.
The Telegraph can reveal that the government’s Whips Office estimated that Johnson would win the support of just 65 Conservative MPs in a new vote of confidence, out of a total of almost 360.
But he rejected cabinet pressure for him to leave, insisting there would be three months of “chaos” if he left, while the Conservatives chose a successor ahead of a likely electoral defeat to Labour.
Anger was building Wednesday night among Johnson’s conservative critics. Sir Bob Neill, chairman of the justice committee, said: “Our country is becoming a laughing stock of one person’s obsessive selfishness.”
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defense committee, said: “We have a patriotic duty to get this done.”
Simon Hart, the Welsh secretary, resigned on Wednesday night over Johnson’s refusal to heed cabinet warnings and resign.
Meanwhile, the leadership race to succeed the Prime Minister came into the open on Wednesday night when Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, declared her candidacy.
Braverman announced her bid to become the next leader live on ITV News, promising tax cuts and calling on Johnson to leave, although she did not resign from the cabinet.
The Prime Minister fired Mr. Gove, the Communities Secretary, in a phone call around 9pm on Wednesday. Gove was accused by Downing Street of leaking to the press that he had been urged to resign.
A Johnson ally said of Gove, “He’s always been treacherous, disloyal, selfish, unreliable, take your pick.” Johnson’s supporters also compared him to a “snake”.
The ally insisted there would be no “lectern moment” soon, declaring that Johnson was planning an economic reset speech that would promise tax cuts and deregulation.
The prime minister’s message to the Conservative rebels seeking his impeachment was “undebrite, smell the coffee and wake up”, warning that Labor could claim number 10 with the SNP and the UK could be divided if he leaves, the ally said.
The outright refusal to accept pleas from her own cabinet ministers to resign made a big difference to Margaret Thatcher, who agreed to resign in 1990 after cabinet pressure.
The showdown is unlike anything in modern British political history, with Theresa May and Tony Blair previously agreeing to step down after mounting criticism within their party.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, the new chancellor, and Chris Heaton-Harris, the whip chief, were among the cabinet figures who told Johnson that he had lost his party’s support. More than half a dozen cabinet figures made that argument.
By Wednesday night, 45 Conservative MPs had resigned from their official positions. That included the resignation of 19 government ministers, 16 on Wednesday.
Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, told Johnson on Wednesday that a second vote on his leadership could take place next week, with a new executive voted in on Monday and free to change leadership rules on Tuesday.
A Johnson ally told The Telegraph: “There will be no lectern moment. The highly billed [Cabinet ministers] The delegation of doom was not nearly as doom-laden as described.
“The Prime Minister has been saying that the choice is not ‘me or not me’. The alternative is to push the button for three months of chaos as the party tears itself apart without a mandate. Labor will immediately demand an election, which Labor will lose given the ‘coalition of chaos’ between Labor and the SNP, and [there will be the] possible breakup of Britain.
The source summed up the message to Tory rebels as “stop thinking ‘this is Boris or it’s not Boris’, or ‘take down Boris and this will all be over’. Stick with this prime minister and a new chancellor with a new economic program. That is what is required.”
Not everyone in the Cabinet turned on Johnson on Wednesday. Both Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit minister, and Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, two of Johnson’s most loyal supporters, rushed to number 10 to urge him to stay.
Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, was flying to Indonesia and Ben Wallace, the Defense Secretary, was traveling by train. Figures close to both cabinet ministers declined to say whether they had privately urged the prime minister to go.
Zahawi also did not resign despite warning the Prime Minister of the dangerous political position. He returned to Treasury and worked with Number 10 on a speech about a “new economic plan” that will include tax cuts.
Gove told Johnson to resign. He had a five-minute one-on-one meeting with him on Wednesday morning and urged him to step down on his own terms before it was too late.
Downing Street critics pointed fingers at Gove after four figures in his department resigned on Wednesday afternoon, fueling calls for Johnson to leave. But one ally denied he was colluding, saying “100 per cent” he would not stand to be Tory leader if there was a contest.
Throughout Wednesday, a succession of ministers and parliamentary private secretaries resigned, many tweeting letters with disparaging views on Johnson.
He also had to endure being asked to leave by two Conservative MPs during Prime Minister’s Questions, after which he sat with his arms crossed as Sajid Javid, his former health secretary who resigned on Tuesday, made a speech asking to the cabinet to act.
However, during a two-hour appearance before the liaison committee, Johnson declared that he was having an “excellent” week and insisted that his government was moving forward with “increasing energy”.
There were signs of mass resignations making government difficult, with the planned scrutiny of a law with parliamentarians canceled because the minister in question had resigned. It was unclear on Wednesday night how long the standoff would continue, with dozens of Conservative MPs desperate over the situation.
If Johnson remains in office early next week, the rebels predicted the 1922 Committee would force a second leadership vote to oust him that way.