Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid resign as British PM’s position plunges deeper in crisis

Boris Johnson apologises for handling of row over allegations against Chris Pincher

Boris Johnson’s future as Britain’s prime minister is in the balance after two senior cabinet ministers resigned, saying he was the wrong person to lead the country. Chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid resigned within minutes of each other shortly after 6pm.

“To leave ministerial office is a serious matter at any time. For me to step down as chancellor while the world is suffering the economic consequences of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and other serious challenges is a decision that I have not taken lightly. However, the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously,” Mr Sunak said in a letter to Mr Johnson.

The resignations came after the prime minister apologised for appointing Chris Pincher deputy chief whip and admitted that he was made aware of complaints about his behaviour. Mr Pincher lost the Conservative whip last week following allegations that he groped two men while drunk in a private members’ club.

Downing Street initially claimed that Mr Johnson had not heard about any specific allegations about Mr Pincher before making him deputy chief whip earlier this year. But, on Tuesday morning, former foreign office permanent secretary Simon McDonald accused No 10 of “not telling the truth” about what the prime minister knew about a complaint against Mr Pincher while he was a foreign office minister in 2019.

In his resignation letter, Mr Javid said Mr Johnson had failed to show humility after 40 per cent of his MPs voted no confidence in his leadership last month.

“The tone you set as a leader, and the values you represent, reflect on your colleagues, your party and ultimately the country. Conservatives at their best are seen as hard-headed decision-makers, guided by strong values. We may not have always been popular, but we have been competent in acting in the national interest. Sadly, in the current circumstances, the public are concluding that we are now neither,” he said.

Mr Javid will be replaced as health secretary by Steve Barclay, the prime minister’s chief of staff. Nadhim Zahawi will replace Mr Sunak as chancellor. Former universities minister Michelle Donelan will take Mr Zahawi’s place as education secretary.

Mr Javid and Mr Sunak’s resignations follow the departure of Conservative chairman Oliver Dowden last month, and MPs at Westminster on Tuesday night expected other cabinet ministers to go. More junior resignations last night included Alex Chalk who resigned as solicitor general, Bim Afolami who quit as Tory vice-chair and Andrew Murrison who resigned as a trade envoy to Morocco while ministerial aides Jonathan Gullis, Saqib Bhatti, Nicola Richards and Virginia Crosbie left their roles. Deputy prime minister Dominic Raab, home secretary Priti Patel and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng made clear that they were planning to remain in government.

Former Brexit minister David Frost said he believed Mr Javid and Mr Sunak made the right decision and that the Conservatives and the country needed a new leader.

Mr Sunak suggested that his decision to resign was triggered by the prime minister’s handling of the scandal surrounding Mr Pincher but was motivated by a deeper discontent with Mr Johnson’s leadership.

“Our country is facing immense challenges. 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 in his resignation letter.

“I firmly believe the public are ready to hear that truth. Our people know that if something is too good to be true then it’s not true. They need to know that whilst there is a path to a better future, it is not an easy one. In preparation for our proposed joint speech on the economy next week, it has become clear to me that our approaches are fundamentally too different.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is London Editor of The Irish Times