Defiant British PM Boris Johnson refuses to quit, fires key minister Gove over past betrayal

A May 2022 photo shows British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) and Housing Secretary Michael Gove (right), who has been fired. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Boris Johnson is desperately clinging to power after suffering an avalanche of resignations from his government that’s unprecedented in recent British political history.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng were among senior figures telling Johnson on Wednesday (July 6) his time was up, as more than 40 ministers and aides followed the example set a day earlier by the resignations of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid.

For much of the day, Johnson’s government was in real danger of imploding as his authority ebbed away.

But following a meeting of his inner circle, Britain’s wounded prime minister went on the attack, firing Michael Gove – one of the Cabinet’s remaining big hitters – in what one official described as revenge for his attempt to remove the premier and a past act of betrayal.

On an already extraordinary day, the move sent shock waves through Westminster. The two men have history; Johnson’s bid for power after the 2016 Brexit referendum was derailed at the last minute when his fellow campaigner for leaving the European Union withdrew his support.

Yet Gove had responsibility for delivering one of Johnson’s signature policies, to “level up” left-behind areas of the UK, many of them former Labour “Red Wall” heartland areas that switched to Johnson’s Tories in 2019.

Removing Gove is risky, with the Tories in open revolt against the prime minister and resignations still coming.

Secretary of State for Wales Simon Hart and Health Minister Edward Argar quit late on Wednesday after Johnson’s plan to stay on was reported, with Hart saying that it’s too late to “turn the ship around”.

“It’s a big gamble for Johnson because Gove has the support of a large part of the parliamentary party, and he is also representing the key department that is politically sensitive to holding on to the Red Wall,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “But I doubt this is about policy; it’s more about revenge for 2016.”

On Wednesday night, the attorney general for England and Wales Suella Braverman called on Johnson to resign and became the first Cabinet minister to say they would run to replace him in any Conservative Party leadership contest.

“I do think the time has come for the prime minister to step down,” Braverman said on ITV. She said she did not want to resign from her post. “If there is a leadership contest I will put my name into the ring.”

Johnson's defiance threatens to trigger more resignations. But the prime minister made clear throughout the day he had no intention of stepping down, telling the House of Commons he saw his mandate as coming from voters that handed him a thumping parliamentary majority in 2019.

"The job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances when he's been handed a colossal mandate is to keep going and that's what I'll do," Johnson told MPs.

He will be calculating he can use the coming days to rally his remaining supporters, before potentially facing another ballot of Tory MPs on his position as soon as Tuesday.

But even as Johnson tries to fight back, another danger is looming. Rebel Tories are determined to hold another vote on his leadership as soon as next week. Having narrowly failed to oust him last month, they are confident of having the numbers to finish the job this time.

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Tax cuts

An ally of Johnson said the prime minister would rather be dragged out of Downing Street, and that Brexit Opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries were supportive of him staying on.

The person said that removing Johnson would mean three months of chaos as the party picks a successor.

The math is certainly not in Johnson’s favor. If 32 more of his MPs had voted against him in June, his premiership would have ended. The number of resignations in the last 24 hours already exceeds that.

Newly appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer Nadhim Zahawi is working on a speech promising tax cuts and deregulation, the person said.

But Johnson is still in grave danger after some big hitters in his government called on him to go.

The sheer volume of resignations - around three dozen - leaves vacancies that will be hard to fill from the back benches.

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‘Up for a fight’

“He’s up for a fight,” James Duddridge, one of Johnson’s parliamentary private secretaries, told Sky News. “He’s going to make some changes.”

But the scale of the Tory unrest makes survival a tall order. Giving his resignation speech in the House of Commons, Javid pulled no punches about problems he said start at the top of the Tory party.

“We have reason to question the truth and integrity of what we’ve all been told,” he said. “At some point we have to conclude that enough is enough.”

Johnson can no longer rely on some of his trusted allies, including Shapps, who the prime minister frequently relies on to help put out fires in his government and handle sensitive media appearances.

Key committee

More than 40 per cent of his MPs opposed him in a confidence vote last month, and many more have changed their mind since then.

That vote theoretically left him immune from another challenge by Tory MPs for a year, but the powerful 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, which organises such ballots, could change its rules to allow another one sooner.

Earlier on Wednesday, Johnson gained at least some respite when the committee decided not to change its rules immediately, instead leaving the decision to a new executive, set to be elected next Monday.

That will then meet a day later on Tuesday to decide whether to change regulations to allow them to hold another vote on Johnson's leadership.

An ally of the prime minister said it is not a given the committee will change the rules, nor that it would call a second vote, and nor that Johnson would lose in the event of one.

The choice Tories face, the person said, is between three months of a leadership election with the party tearing itself apart, and the prospect of Johnson and Zahawi outlining a new economic programme of the kind the party's MPs have been clamouring for.

Johnson has vowed to fight any leadership challenge, and his press secretary told reporters he also expects to win.

‘Greased piglet’

That would be a remarkable outcome even for the man known in British political circles as the “greased piglet” for his ability to evade trouble.

Johnson's position has been in jeopardy for months amid a succession of scandals including "partygate," which saw him become the first sitting prime minister to be fined for breaking the law in office.

But the anger of his MPs snowballed in the past week as it emerged the premier promoted an MP, Chris Pincher, to a senior government role in February despite knowing of a formal complaint into inappropriate behaviour in 2019.

Pincher quit last week amid similar, fresh, allegations, and Johnson's failure to come clean quickly enough about what he knew and when about Pincher's conduct drew criticism from across the party, with Tories openly questioning the honesty and integrity of the premier and his team.

“Treading the tightrope between loyalty and integrity has become impossible,” Javid said.

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