LONDON: A defiant British Prime Minister Boris Johnson battled to remain in office Wednesday, shrugging off calls for his resignation after two top ministers and a slew of junior officials said they could no longer serve under his scandal-tarred leadership.
Members of the opposition Labour Party showered Johnson with shouts of “Go! Go!’’ during the weekly ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons as critics argued the leader’s days were numbered following his poor handling of sexual misconduct allegations against a senior official.
But more damningly, members of Johnson’s own Conservative Party — wearied by the many scandals he has faced — also challenged their leader, with one asking whether there was anything that might prompt him to resign.
“Frankly … the job of the prime minister in difficult circumstances, when he’s been handed a colossal mandate, is to keep going,’’ Johnson replied, with the bluster he has used to fend off critics throughout nearly three years in office. “And that’s what I’m going to do.”
His fellow Conservatives listened quietly, but offered little support.
Johnson is known for his ability to wiggle out of tight spots, managing to remain in power despite suggestions that he was too close to party donors, protected supporters from bullying and corruption allegations, and misled Parliament about parties in government offices that broke COVID-19 lockdown rules.
He hung on even when 41 percent of Conservative lawmakers voted to oust him in a no-confidence vote last month and formerly loyal lieutenants urged him to resign.
But recent revelations that Johnson knew about sexual misconduct allegations against a lawmaker before he promoted the man to a senior position in his government have pushed him to the brink.
Many of his fellow Conservatives are concerned that Johnson no longer has the moral authority to govern at a time when difficult decisions are needed to address soaring food and energy prices, rising COVID-19 infections and the war in Ukraine. Others worry that a leader renowned for his ability to win elections may now be a liability at the ballot box.
Former Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who helped trigger the current crisis when he resigned Tuesday night, captured the mood of many lawmakers when he said Johnson’s actions threatened to undermine the integrity of the Conservative Party and the British government.
“At some point we have to conclude that enough is enough,” he told fellow lawmakers. “I believe that point is now.”
Johnson’s grilling in Parliament was the first of two Wednesday. He was also questioned by a committee of senior lawmakers.
How Johnson handles the questioning may determine whether the simmering rebellion in the Conservative Party gathers enough strength to oust him. Also looming was a meeting of the leadership of a powerful Conservative Party committee — and action there could signal whether lawmakers have the appetite to pursue another vote of no-confidence.
Months of discontent over Johnson’s judgment and ethics erupted when Javid and Treasury chief Rishi Sunak resigned within minutes of each other on Tuesday evening. The two heavyweights of the Cabinet were responsible for tackling two of the biggest issues facing Britain — the cost-of-living crisis and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In a scathing letter, Sunak said “the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously. … I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning.”
Javid said the party needed “humility, grip and a new direction” but “it is clear this situation will not change under your leadership.”
Mindful of the need to shore up confidence, Johnson quickly replaced the ministers, promoting Nadhim Zahawi from the education department to treasury chief and installing his chief of staff, Steve Barclay, as health secretary.
But a string of resignations by more junior members — from both the moderate and right-wing of the Conservative party — that followed late Tuesday and early Wednesday underscored the danger to Johnson.
Former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said late Tuesday that the prime minister’s time was finally up.
“It’s a bit like the death of Rasputin: He’s been poisoned, stabbed, he’s been shot, his body’s been dumped in a freezing river, and still he lives,’’ Mitchell told the BBC. “But this is an abnormal prime minister, a brilliantly charismatic, very funny, very amusing, big, big character. But I’m afraid he has neither the character nor the temperament to be our prime minister.”
The final straw for Sunak and Javid was the prime minister’s shifting explanations about his handling of allegations against Chris Pincher.
Last week, Pincher resigned as Conservative deputy chief whip after complaints he groped two men at a private club. That triggered a series of reports about past allegations leveled against Pincher and questions about what Johnson knew when he tapped Pincher for a senior job enforcing party discipline.
Johnson’s office initially said he wasn’t aware of the previous accusations when he promoted Pincher in February. By Monday, a spokesman said Johnson did know of the allegations — but they were “either resolved or did not progress to a formal complaint.”
When a former top civil servant in the Foreign Office contradicted that, saying Johnson was briefed about a 2019 allegation that resulted in a formal complaint, Johnson’s office said the prime minister had forgotten about the briefing.
It was all too much for ministers who have been sent out to defend the government’s position in radio and TV interviews, only to find the story changed within a few hours.
Bim Afolami, who quit as Conservative Party vice chairman on Tuesday, said he had been willing to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt — until the Pincher affair.
“The difficulty is not overall the program of the government,” he said. “The problem is character and integrity in Downing Street, and I think that people in the Conservative Party and people in the country know that.”
Paul Drechsler, chair of the International Chamber of Commerce in Britain, said change is needed at the top if the government is going to address a growing economic crisis.
“I would say the most important thing to do is to feed people who are hungry,’’ he told the BBC. “The poorest in our society are going to be starving to death the second half of this year. That needs to be addressed.”