Boris Johnson was already in deep trouble before he stood up for prime minister’s questions at midday on Wednesday; by the time it was over, everyone at Westminster knew he was finished. For more than half an hour, Johnson deployed all his old routines as he shifted from contrition to defiance, bombast and partisan jeering at the opposition.
The Conservative MPs behind him sat in silence throughout, some shaking their heads as they watched the prime minister attempt to defend his handling of the scandal surrounding former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher. Many of the questions from his own side were as hostile as those from across the aisle, none more so than when Tim Loughton asked if there are any circumstances in which he should resign.
“The job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances, when he has been handed a colossal mandate, is to keep going, and that is what I am going to do,” Johnson said.
Throughout Wednesday, in the Commons chamber and before the liaison committee later, the prime minister invoked his mandate from the 2019 general election as if it was a personal one. It is a constitutional nonsense but a telling one that reflects the impatience Johnson has shown with checks on his power since he entered Downing Street.
Outside the chamber, the prime minister’s power was draining away as one after another dozens of MPs resigned from the government while at the dispatch box his authority was evaporating before our eyes. Labour leader Keir Starmer, who has seldom been on such good form for a big parliamentary event, poured scorn on Johnson and his remaining ministers.
“What a pathetic spectacle: the dying act of the prime minister’s political career is to parrot that nonsense. As for those who are left, they are only in office because no one else is prepared to debase themselves any longer — the charge of the lightweight brigade,” he said.
It was Sajid Javid, who resigned as health secretary on Tuesday, who twisted the knife in a personal statement after prime minister’s questions. He said he wished his former colleagues well in their decision to remain in government but warned them about the consequences of their decision.
“They will have their own reasons, but it is a choice. I know just how difficult that choice is but let us be clear: not doing something is an active decision,” he said.
A number of those ministers, including Nadhim Zahawi who had been appointed chancellor of the exchequer just the night before, took heed of Javid’s words a few hours later and told the prime minister it was time for him to go.