LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s support eroded quickly Wednesday, a day after two shattering defections from his Cabinet. The resignations kept coming, and some Cabinet ministers were telling the prime minister he should resign, the BBC reported.
Throughout the day, more than two dozen junior ministers and aides quit their posts, following the lead of the chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, and the health secretary, Sajid Javid, who resigned Tuesday.
Johnson got somewhat of a reprieve Wednesday night, when a Conservative Party committee put off a vote on a rules change that would have let them hold a no-confidence vote soon in Parliament and oust Johnson.
But that was only a speck of decent news for the prime minister, who earlier Wednesday got a scathing reception in Parliament.
Johnson vowed to fight on, trying to shift the focus to new government tax cuts that he said would help millions of struggling Britons. But in back rooms across Westminster, lawmakers were meeting to discuss ways to force Johnson out, possibly within days.
In Parliament, the Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, delivered a damning indictment of Johnson’s role in the latest scandal, which involved accusations of sexual misconduct and excessive drinking by a Conservative lawmaker.
Johnson had promoted the lawmaker, Chris Pincher, after previous allegations of misconduct. Ministers were sent out to offer denials about what the prime minister had known of the allegations, but those claims unraveled quickly, a grimly familiar experience that some cited as they resigned.
“Anyone quitting now, after defending all that, hasn’t got a shred of integrity,” Starmer said, pointing a finger at Johnson. “Isn’t this the first recorded case of the sinking ship fleeing the rats?”
Johnson, looking embattled, apologized again for backing Pincher but insisted that he as prime minister was delivering on behalf of the British people.
“The job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances, when he’s been handed a colossal mandate, is to keep going,” he declared.
The situation appeared to worsen for Johnson on Wednesday afternoon, as the BBC reported that Michael Gove, an influential Cabinet member, had told the prime minister that it was time to go. Gove, the housing secretary, has long been seen as a key power broker in the Conservative Party and was noticeably absent from the frontbenches of Parliament during the tense exchanges earlier in the day.
The broadcaster also reported members of the Cabinet were urging Johnson to step down, including Nadhim Zahawi, who only yesterday was made chancellor of the Exchequer, and Priti Patel, the home secretary.
The charged back-and-forth in Parliament earlier in the day captured the dizzying decline in Johnson’s fortunes. Several Conservatives called on him to resign, including Gary Sambrook, a lawmaker from Birmingham who is a ranking official on an influential committee of Conservative backbenchers that controls a future no-confidence vote.
Sunak and Javid quit after Johnson apologized for the latest scandal to engulf his government. Several other officials have since followed, including Will Quince, the minister for children and families, who at the start of the week had stoutly defended Johnson’s role in the scandal.
The departures broke open a movement against Johnson within his party that has been building against him for months, fueled by a stream of embarrassing reports of social gatherings at Downing Street that violated the government’s own coronavirus lockdown rules.
Johnson had moved quickly to announce replacements for Sunak and Javid, signaling that he planned to try to steady the government and battle for his job. And he did his best to project a defiant image: According to the Times of London, when an ally asked him Tuesday evening whether he planned to resign, he replied with the epithet “F- that.”
Still, by all accounts, the prime minister was in greater political peril than at any other time in his tumultuous three-year tenure in Downing Street.
A freewheeling journalist turned politician, Johnson has survived multiple investigations, a criminal fine by the police and a no-confidence vote among lawmakers in his Conservative Party only last month — all related to the parties held in Downing Street during coronavirus lockdowns.
But it was the more recent outcry over Johnson’s promotion of Pincher that appeared to tip Sunak and Javid, and set the stage for the latest round of recrimination.
Last week, Pincher resigned as the party’s deputy chief whip after admitting having been drunk at a private members’ club in London where, it was alleged, he groped two men. On Tuesday, Downing Street admitted that Johnson had been told about previous accusations against Pincher in 2019 — something that Johnson’s office initially denied.
Starmer, the Labour leader, could face a reckoning of his own Wednesday: The police in Durham, England, are about to release their findings of an investigation into whether he violated the law by taking part in a beer-and-Indian-food dinner with other party officials during a pandemic lockdown. Starmer has vowed to resign if the police impose a fine on him.