Watch out, someone may have resigned between the time it takes me to write this and the time you take to read it. Last night (5 July), Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak – two of Boris Johnson’s leading ministers, who were sitting either side of him around the cabinet table 24 hours ago – resigned within minutes of one another. Other MPs with lesser posts followed Javid’s lead last night, and continue to do so this morning.
The catalyst for Javid and Sunak was the Prime Minister’s handling of the Christopher Pincher affair, although the roots of their resignations are far deeper.
Both men considered resigning earlier this year, but Sunak equivocated at the peak of partygate in February, and Javid felt at the time that there was plenty of scope to remove Johnson later in this parliament, with another election not due until December 2024. That all changed as both men watched Johnson’s most destructive trait on full display – his flagrant disregard for the truth and insistence that others lie if he instructs them to do so. (Now, “the Prime Minister has no one left to lie to”, as our leader puts it.)
Advisers to Javid were split over the decision to go in the days leading up to his resignation, with some wary of Johnson’s wrath if Javid did resign – a risk that Javid recognised. But in the end, I am told, “it just got unbearable”. The resignations were not coordinated; the pair are not particularly close. Few are crediting Sunak with standing down at last. “Rishi,” says one Tory strategist, “proved he is a follower not a leader.”
Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary until yesterday, has been handed the Treasury – after reportedly demanding the post as the price of not resigning himself last night. His decision to take the role has dismayed many who want Johnson gone, as a majority of the parliamentary party now almost certainly do. “I’m disappointed in Nadhim. He could have been the compromise candidate,” said one Tory rebel to another when I told them of the news last night. “He’s wrecked his leadership chances.”
Is that right? Zahawi is not a fool. He has a charming manner and he is competent. So why has he chosen to prop up a Prime Minister whom a majority of 2019 Tory voters (along with 70 per cent of the public) now want to resign, as YouGov revealed last night? Zahawi will be aware of how unpopular Johnson is – he ran YouGov for five years, from 2005 to 2010.
But Zahawi’s calculation is simple: he will gain more from the name recognition that will come from being chancellor than he will lose by alienating, perhaps only temporarily, those who oppose Johnson. In any future leadership contest, the thinking goes, he will now likely start as a frontrunner. If he had been merely the third cabinet minister to resign yesterday, that may not have been the case. This morning, Zahawi rather oddly claimed on the Today programme that Johnson’s willingness to share data publicly as part of the vaccine programme – a great success story that Zahawi happen to oversee – showed that the Prime Minister was not deceitful.
I would not, however, expect Zahawi to serve as chancellor for long because Boris Johnson cannot long survive if a majority of Tory MPs oppose him, as now appears to be the case. Given Johnson’s refusal to resign, expect attention to turn back to the 1922 Committee and the possibility of another confidence vote soon being called; we have detailed how that might happen.
“He’ll never leave of his own accord because he can’t bear to have lasted such a short time, but he’s on the slippery slope now,” says a top Tory with extensive experience in government who has long observed Johnson. “The delicious irony is that he’s being thrown out for exactly what’s wrong with him – that he’s a liar. He lied to himself about Brexit, he lied to the country about Brexit, and now he’s being done for lying. It’s his faults that have found him out.”
[ See also: Boris Johnson to resign – what happens now? ]