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Why Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak finally lost patience with Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson’s insistence that others lie on his behalf proved too much for his senior cabinet colleagues.

By Harry Lambert

A little over a month ago, on 6 June, two in five Tory MPs voted to remove Boris Johnson – their leader and our Prime Minister – from office. No prime minister has ever sought to stay in office after being rejected by so great a proportion of their party. When Margaret Thatcher faced a similarly sized revolt in 1990 she announced her resignation within 48 hours. But Johnson refused to resign, and initially it appeared as if he may have bought himself a final chance to revive his premiership. Even the most hardline Tory rebels conceded that Johnson would not now be toppled before the summer, and that any change in the party rules preventing another no-confidence vote within a year would have to wait for the autumn.

Everything has now changed. On the evening of 5 July, Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak – the Health Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer – resigned from Johnson’s government within minutes of one another. Their resignations followed a torrid week in which the Prime Minister’s most destructive trait – his flagrant disregard for the truth and insistence that others lie if he instructs them to do so – finally proved too much for his leading colleagues. “This is the end,” a senior Tory told me on the night that both men resigned. “Johnson has just lost his Chancellor and his ex-chancellor. The game is up. The party’s patience has snapped.”

Johnson’s cabinet have tired of covering for their leader. “All of the cabinet ministers think ‘There but for the grace of God, go I tomorrow’,” one well-placed Tory tells me, referring to the graveyard shifts that cabinet ministers are forced to endure whenever they appear on television or radio to defend the Prime Minister.

Javid and Sunak finally acted after days of intense pressure on the government caused by the resignation of Christopher Pincher as deputy chief whip on 30 June. Pincher stepped down after being accused of drunkenly groping two men at the Carlton Club in London, but committed to remaining on the backbenches. The incident was only the latest in a long line of sexual allegations made against Pincher, who had been forced to resign from government once before, in 2017. Nevertheless Johnson appointed him to the post in February, and even wanted to make Pincher chief whip until Tory MPs found out and rebelled.

When Pincher resigned, Johnson initially accepted his wish to remain a Tory MP, and almost appeared to congratulate Pincher on his resignation. “The PM thinks he’s done the decent thing by resigning. There is no need for an investigation and no need to suspend the whip,” a Tory source told the press. That position seemed incredible and untenable, and so it proved. Johnson was forced to remove the whip from Pincher within 24 hours, but in the following days his spokespeople appeared to lie regularly to the press about whether Johnson knew of the historical allegations against Pincher. 

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[See also: Boris Johnson’s resignation alone is not enough]

On the morning of 5 July, Simon McDonald – Johnson’s permanent secretary when he ran the Foreign Office – published an extraordinary letter revealing that Johnson had in fact been briefed on a series of allegations. McDonald was motivated to speak out, he wrote, because “The original No 10 line is not true and the modification still not accurate. Mr Johnson was briefed in person… Mr Pincher was not exonerated.”

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Javid’s resignation was carefully timed. He released his statement on 5 July just as Boris Johnson’s belated apology for his handling of the Pincher affair was publicly released, draining all the attention away from it. But Johnson’s statement is worth noting. In it, he reflected on his judgement of Pincher: “If I had my time again,” he said, “I would think back on it and recognise that he wasn’t going to learn any lessons and he wasn’t going to change.” This was laced with an irony that Johnson appeared to miss; there is no greater example of a man who has so repeatedly erred – and so unerringly failed to change – than Johnson himself. The Prime Minister has learned no more from the Pincher affair than he has from partygate. 

He will apologise when he must, to extricate himself from a situation, but he never means to change. Indeed, after surviving the confidence vote against him, Johnson promised more of the same: a “psychological transformation” in his character, he told the BBC on 25 June, was “not going to happen”. In resigning, Javid and Sunak – and other MPs who soon followed Javid’s lead, resigning lesser posts and announcing their newfound opposition to Johnson – have publicly recognised that the Prime Minister will never change, and that he will not resign. 

“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 who has long observed Johnson, and has extensive experience in government. “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.”

Johnson will, as ever, attempt to cling on. “Possession,” one of his supporters told me valiantly on 5 July, “is nine-tenths of the law”. That may be so, but it is now almost certain that Johnson does not have possession of the parliamentary Tory party. And if that is true, he cannot hold on to Downing Street for long at all.

It is Javid who will be remembered for resigning this week. Sunak – the man who for two years appeared to be the heir apparent – will get little credit from anyone for finally stepping down. “Rishi proved he is a follower not a leader,” a Tory strategist tells me. “He should have gone ages ago.” 

Javid was, until his resignation, the most experienced member of the cabinet after Michael Gove, and had held more cabinet posts than anyone in it. He served as secretary of state for culture, business and housing before becoming home secretary and chancellor. He resigned in February 2020, paving the way for Sunak to succeed him, but returned last year as health secretary. I am told the advice of George Osborne, the former chancellor, helped to encourage him to resign. Close advisers to Javid were split over the decision in the days leading up to his resignation, with some wary of Johnson’s wrath if Javid did go – a risk that Javid recognised. But in the end, I am told, “it just got unbearable”. It was time.

[See also: Is this the end for Boris Johnson?]