LONDON (REUTERS) - Four of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's closest aides resigned on Thursday (Feb 3) in a turbulent day for his government, as the British prime minister tried to reset his administration in the face of a series of scandals that have put his position in peril.
Johnson's premiership is facing a growing crisis in the wake of anger over a series of alcohol-fuelled parties held at his Downing Street office and residence during coronavirus lockdowns, which followed a series of other missteps.
Angry lawmakers in his own Conservative Party, some of whom have already called for his resignation, have demanded an overhaul of his Downing Street operation if he is to remain in power.
On Thursday, three of his top aides – Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield, Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds, and Director of Communications Jack Doyle – all resigned in what some Conservative lawmakers (MPs) said looked like the start of a somewhat disorganised reset in Johnson’s administration.
However, a fourth quit over a barb Mr Johnson made at the leader of the main opposition Labour party, something for which his finance minister also criticised him.
“On Monday Boris Johnson promised MPs change. Tonight we see that change starting to happen and I welcome this quick action by the prime minister,” lawmaker Stuart Anderson said on Twitter, one of a number of Mr Johnson supporters who took to social media to applaud the shake-up.
Mr Johnson pledged to change his leadership style after a report by senior civil servant Sue Gray into the gatherings held at his Downing Street office and residence condemned “serious failures of leadership”.
Mr Rosenfield, Mr Reynolds and Mr Doyle were directly linked to the gatherings – Mr Reynolds was reported to have sent an email asking attendees to “bring your own booze” to one.
Mr Johnson’s office said Mr Rosenfield and Mr Reynolds would remain in their posts for the time being.
His personal ratings have plummeted and his party has fallen well behind Labour in opinion polls amid a series of scandals and gaffes. The police are still investigating 12 of the lockdown gatherings, and a more detailed report from Gray with potentially more damaging revelations could follow afterwards.
The political problems also come as British households face a cost of living squeeze with energy prices set to soar in April, while the Bank of England also raised interest rates again on Thursday.
Mr Johnson, who won a massive majority for the Conservatives in a 2019 election, has also been condemned this week for accusing Labour leader Keir Starmer of failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, one of Britain’s worst sex offenders, during his time as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
The false claim, which Mr Starmer said amounted to Mr Johnson "parroting the conspiracy theories of violent fascists", has angered not only opponents but also some within his own party.
Mr Johnson has declined to apologise but did back down from the comments on Thursday, saying “a lot of people have got very hot under the collar”.
“I’m talking not about the leader of the opposition’s personal record when he was... DPP and I totally understand that he had nothing to do personally with those decisions.”
However it failed to satisfy Ms Munira Mirza, his head of policy who had worked with him for 14 years, and prompted her to quit her job, and also provoked criticism from finance minister Rishi Sunak.
“This was not the usual cut and thrust of politics; it was an inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child sex abuse,” The Spectator magazine cited Ms Mirza as saying in a letter to Mr Johnson.
“I hope you find it in yourself to apologise for a grave error of judgment made under huge pressure... It is not too late for you but, I’m sorry to say, it is too late for me.”
Asked whether the prime minister should have apologised, Mr Sunak, who along with foreign minister Liz Truss is considered a leading contender to replace Mr Johnson should he be forced out, said: “Being honest, I wouldn’t have said it, and I am glad the prime minister clarified what he said.”
Savile, a celebrated TV and radio host, was never prosecuted despite a number of police investigations. After his death in 2011 at age 84, it was revealed he had abused hundreds of victims.
Mr Starmer, who headed the Crown Prosecution Service at a time when Savile was being investigated, had no direct involvement in the case, but did later apologise for the failings.
Mr Johnson said he was sorry to lose Ms Mirza but rejected her assessment that his Mr Starmer comments were inappropriate.
“Well I don’t agree with that,” he told 5 News.
Starmer, who headed the Crown Prosecution Service at a time when Savile was being investigated, had no direct involvement in the case, but did later apologise for the failings.
In interviews on Thursday, Johnson tried to back down from his original comments which provoked scorn not just from opponents but some in his own Conservative party.
'Hot under the collar'
"I want to be very clear about this because a lot of people have got very hot under the collar," Johnson told broadcasters.
"I'm talking not about the leader of the opposition's personal record when he was... DPP and I totally understand that he had nothing to do personally with those decisions."
But Mirza said there had been no fair or reasonable basis for his original assertion.
"This was not the usual cut and thrust of politics; it was an inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child sex abuse," The Spectator magazine cited Mirza as saying in a letter to Johnson.
"I hope you find it in yourself to apologise for a grave error of judgement made under huge pressure... It is not too late for you but, I'm sorry to say, it is too late for me."
Johnson said he was sorry to lose Mirza but rejected her assessment that his Starmer comments were inappropriate.
"Well I don't agree with that," he told 5 News.
To compound his woes, his director of communications Jack Doyle, considered one of his inner circle, also left the government on Thursday. However, the Daily Mail reported his departure was not connected to Mirza's resignation.
Johnson is trying to weather the gravest threat to his leadership with his ratings plummeting and the Conservatives falling well below Labour in opinion polls.
He faced renewed calls to resign from some Conservative lawmakers after a report on Monday found that parties had taken place at his Downing Street office and residence while social mixing was all but banned, gatherings which police are also investigating.