Boris Johnson was clinging to power on Tuesday night after Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid dramatically resigned from the UK Prime Minister’s Office within minutes of each other.
A number of junior members of government also quit, with many Tory MPs believing the cabinet mutiny could signal the beginning of the end for Johnson.
But there was relief in Downing Street when a number of other high-profile figures – including Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace and Secretary at Michael Gove leveling – have indicated they are staying.
Johnson immediately began to reshuffle his cabinet. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has been named the new chancellor. Steve Barclay, a former Treasury minister and currently Johnson’s chief of staff, replaces Javid as health secretary.
Many Tory MPs believe Johnson’s term as Prime Minister is coming to an end. Last month more than 40% of MPs expressed no confidence in their leader and cabinet unity was broken.
Both Sunak and Javid were critical of the prime minister’s conduct, with Sunak saying in an excoriating resignation letter: “The public rightly expects government to be run properly, competently and seriously.
On a day when Johnson’s honesty was called into question, Sunak suggested the prime minister was prepared to mislead voters about the precarious state facing the economy and the need for “tough decisions”.
“I believe the public is ready to hear the truth,” he said, adding that he and Johnson “fundamentally” disagree on economic policy. “Our people know that if something is too good to be true, then it’s not true.”
Loyal Tory MPs said Johnson told them he was now more likely to offer early tax cuts, a policy popular with right-wing Tories but which Sunak said could fuel inflation as the rise prices are heading into the double digits.
Johnson also wants to cancel a planned increase in corporate tax from 19% to 25% next year, a move opposed by Sunak, who believes the increase is necessary to clean up public finances.
Sunak’s resignation came minutes after his old friend Javid left. In his letter, Javid said, “The tone you set as a leader, the values you represent, reflect your colleagues, your party and ultimately the country.”
Sunak and Javid’s resignations followed the forced departure of disgraced former Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher last week after allegations he groped two men while drunk at a private club.
Downing Street insisted for days that Johnson had not been made aware of Pincher’s “specific allegations” of misconduct in the past. On Tuesday, Johnson admitted he had been made aware of the allegations in 2019 – but had forgotten about it. “It’s an absolute disgrace,” said a minister.
With ministers unwilling to defend him publicly, the prime minister gave a BBC interview ahead of the resignations where he apologized for appointing Pincher as deputy chief whip in February. “In hindsight, it was the wrong thing to do,” he said.
But as Johnson’s belated apology aired, Javid announced he was leaving. The Health Secretary, who previously resigned as chancellor in 2020 after a power struggle with Number 10, believes he can be a unifying figure as a future Tory leader.
Javid said in his resignation letter: “Last month’s vote of confidence showed that many of our colleagues are on board. It was a moment of humility, empowerment and new direction. However, I regret to say that it is clear to me that this situation will not change under your leadership.
Sunak’s allies have insisted the double resignations were uncoordinated, but their departure from the cabinet now means Johnson has two potential leadership rivals sitting on the benches.
The former chancellor said he and Johnson took approaches to the economy that were “fundamentally too different”. A proposal for a joint economic speech by the two men had proved impossible to agree.
A ministerial ally of Sunak said the main difference between the incumbent chancellor and the prime minister was that “one is sane, the other is a clown”.
Markets will be watching for signals of what the chancellor change will mean for future economic policy, including the possibility of a looser tax regime that could force the Bank of England to raise interest rates faster.
A number of Tory MPs called on Johnson to step down on Tuesday night. Next week the party will elect a new executive of the 1922 backbench committee, which sets the rules for leadership contests.
An anti-Johnson slate of candidates is expected to push for a change in party rules to allow another early vote of no-confidence in the prime minister. Current rules state that such a vote can only be held every 12 months.
Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labor Party, said: “After all the shambles, the scandals and the failures, it is clear that this government is falling apart.” Sir Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat leader, said: ‘A house of cards built on lies and deceit is collapsing.