Boris Johnson’s premiership was in peril last night after two cabinet ministers and potential leadership candidates quit the government in protest at Downing Street’s handling of a series of recent scandals.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, walked out of the cabinet after Mr Johnson apologised for promoting Chris Pincher to the role of deputy chief whip in February despite being told of a sexual misconduct complaint against the Tamworth MP in 2019.
Further government resignations were expected by the end of the night but Mr Johnson showed no signs of calling it a day himself as a number of loyal ministers – including Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary and Dominic Raab, the deputy PM and justice secretary – backed him to continue in No 10 Downing Street.
But what happens if he does decide in a few days’ time that he simply can’t go on? Although Mr Raab was given the title of deputy PM by Mr Johnson, the Conservative Party has no ‘second-in-command’ position.
Because the Tories have a majority and still remain as the government, the cabinet could nominate an interim PM before the party holds a proper leadership contest – a process which usually takes several weeks – to choose a permanent successor to Mr Johnson.
Any new leader could subsequently face claims by the opposition that they were not personally given a mandate by the British public to govern the country. They may then decide that they need to hold a general election – especially if they struggled to assert their authority over MPs following what would be a divisive leadership contest.
At present, the only way, really, that Mr Johnson can leave No 10 is if he decides to quit himself. This is because the Conservative Party held a confidence vote on his leadership in June.
He narrowly won that ballot and under current party rules, another contest cannot be triggered for 12 months. There have been reports, however, that Tory rebels who voted against Mr Johnson in the confidence vote plan a takeover of executive positions on the party’s 1922 Committee in a bid to change the rules.
The 1922 Committee is made up of a group of influential backbench MPs who decide the rules on leadership contests.
It is not clear that Mr Johnson would win a second ballot given the resignations of Mr Javid and Mr Sunak, who followed their colleague Oliver Dowden, the Tory Party chairman, out of government. Mr Dowden quit after the party’s damaging byelection defeats in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton earlier this month.
In the confidence vote, a total of 41 per cent of MPs voted against Mr Johnson. But this included MPs who were on the government payroll and therefore more likely to back the PM to save their jobs.
At the time of the vote there were around 160-170 on the government payroll – or nearly half of the party’s 358 MPs.
Later on Tuesday, the vice-chairman of the Conservative Party quit live on TV, after saying he could no longer support the PM
Bim Afolami, the MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, followed the chancellor and health secretary with his resignation after Mr Johnson apologised for his handling of the row over scandal-hit former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher.
Mr Afolami said on Talk TV’s The News Desk with Tom Newton-Dunn: “(After) recent allegations about the former deputy chief whip and other things that have happened over recent weeks, I just don’t think the prime minister any longer has, not just my support, but he doesn’t have, I don’t think, the support of the party, or indeed the country any more.
“I think for that reason he should step down.”
Mr Afolami said he was “probably not” the party’s vice chairman “after having said that”.
Confirming he would be resigning, he continued: “I think you have to resign because I can’t serve under the Prime Minister – but I say that with regret because I think this government has done some great things.
“I think the prime minister has a strong legacy in a huge range of areas, but I just think that when you’ve lost trust of people, and the prime minister asked at the confidence vote to be given time to instil that trust, I took that as many others did in the party.
“But I think it’s become clear, particularly after losing the support of two of his closest cabinet colleagues, that I think the time has come for him to stand down.”
Mr Johnson faces Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Question on Wednesday. Mr Starmer will seek to inflict maximum damage on the PM after being accused of missing an “open goal” at a previous session, following Mr Johnson’s narrow victory in the confidence vote.
Earlier Mr Starmer said the government was “collapsing” because Mr Johnson is “unfit to govern”.
“That is dawning on many people across the Conservative Party, but they have to reflect on that, that they have backed him for months and months and months,” he told broadcasters.
“Resigning today means nothing against their complicity for all those months when they should have seen him for what he was, they knew who he was.
“We need a change of government.”