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A wave of Conservative outrage brings Johnson to the brink

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson encountered another political crisis after the sudden resignations of two top Cabinet officers. The resignations stem from a new scandal — a minister in Johnson’s government faces accusations of groping two men — that raises questions about Johnson’s judgment and honesty.Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain was battling for his political survival Tuesday night after the bombshell resignations of two of his top Cabinet officers. The resignations appeared to be a coordinated move against the Conservative Party leader amid the latest in a long string of scandals.

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the Exchequer, and Sajid Javid, the health secretary, both quit over a fresh scandal that once again raised questions about Johnson’s judgment and honesty.

The latest crisis centers on a Conservative lawmaker who was a minister in Johnson’s government, Chris Pincher. Last week, Pincher quit his government post after a drunken night during which he is accused of having groped two men. Later it emerged that there had been similar previous allegations against him.

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For days, the government insisted that Johnson had no knowledge of any prior accusations when he appointed Pincher.

Then on Monday, Downing Street acknowledged that the prime minister had known of one accusation, from Pincher’s days at the Foreign Office, but said there had been no formal complaint against him. It was then revealed that there had, in fact, been a formal complaint — and it was reported that Johnson knew about it.

On Tuesday, the former top civil servant in the Foreign Office, Sir Simon McDonald, publicly accused the government of repeatedly distorting the truth.

Johnson apologized Tuesday for appointing Pincher, saying he “bitterly regrets” it. Sunak’s and Javid’s resignations came shortly afterward, thrusting Johnson into what could be the most perilous position of his three-year tenure as prime minister.

Just a month ago, following a series of unrelated scandals, he survived a no-confidence vote by his fellow Conservative lawmakers, but whatever breathing room that gave him is waning fast.

Because Johnson survived that vote, Conservative members of Parliament cannot call another for a year, unless the party’s rules are changed. That means that pressure to resign from within his own government — including Cabinet resignations like those on Tuesday — could be the only effective method of forcing him out.

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Johnson moved quickly to try to blunt the impact of the resignations, appointing Steve Barclay, who has held several government positions, to replace Javid as health secretary.

Johnson’s fate may rest on whether other members of his Cabinet stand by him. Although a number of senior ministers are known to be loyal to the prime minister, there was doubt about some others, and their words and actions will be watched closely.

Whether or not the Cabinet stays loyal, Johnson faces an uphill battle to restore his battered authority. Even before the resignations Tuesday, Conservative lawmakers were speculating about changing party rules to allow a fresh no-confidence vote before the summer recess.

So far, Johnson has refused calls for his resignation.

In a BBC interview Tuesday, he acknowledged that it had been “a mistake” to make Pincher deputy chief whip, given previous complaints about his conduct. “With hindsight it is the wrong thing to do, and I apologize to everyone who has been badly affected by it,” Johnson said.

The story has echoes of the revelation of alcohol-fueled parties at Downing Street that violated the government’s own COVID lockdown rules. Johnson and his allies responded with denials, changing stories, and finally, apologies and promises of better conduct.

Javid, in his resignation statement, said that he could “no longer, in good conscience, continue serving in this government.”

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In his own statement, Sunak said: “The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously. I recognize this may be my last ministerial job, but I believe these standards are worth fighting for, and that is why I am resigning.”