The departure of Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid, two of his most senior ministers, is an unprecedented setback that must herald the end of Boris Johnson’s premiership. Other ministers signalled that they were not ready to follow suit just yet, but throughout Westminster and Whitehall the stench of decay is everywhere and unmistakable.
The immediate cause of Johnson’s trouble is his handling of the scandal surrounding former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher who resigned last week after he was accused of groping two men. Johnson admitted on Tuesday that, contrary to statements by his official spokesman, he had known about earlier complaints about Pincher’s behaviour.
Pincher was a close ally of the prime minister, helping to shore up his position within the parliamentary party in the wake of Partygate. On Tuesday Johnson said he was sorry he had made Pincher deputy chief whip in view of the record of complaints about him. “If I had my time again I would think back on it and recognise that he wasn’t going to learn anything and he wasn’t going to change and I regret that,” he said.
Johnson’s problem is that a growing number of his MPs have concluded that after numerous apologies and resets he is not going to change either. A total of 148 Conservative MPs, including most of his backbenchers, voted no confidence in his leadership last month but they failed to topple him.
Although rebels muttered about changing the rules to allow a second challenge to his leadership within 12 months, most MPs understood that it would take a cabinet revolt to get rid of Johnson. Sunak and Javid have now started that move and other ministers could follow them within the next 24 hours.
Although both men made clear they were acting in response to Johnson’s handling of the Pincher affair, Mr Sunak also identified policy differences. He said he and the prime minister were at odds over fiscal policy ahead of a planned joint statement on the economy next week.
“We both want a low-tax, high-growth economy, and world class public services, but this can only be responsibly delivered if we are prepared to work hard, make sacrifices and take difficult decisions,” he said.
Former Brexit minister David Frost, who is popular with the right wing of the Conservative party, backed Sunak’s resignation and appeared to endorse his policy outlook.
Tuesday’s resignations not only spell the end for Johnson but mark the start of a contest to succeed him in which fortune may favour the bold.