LONDON — Boris Johnson is digging in as U.K. prime minister, after the resignation of two of the most senior members of his government brought his premiership to the brink on another febrile day in Westminster.
The prime minister appointed Nadhim Zahawi as his new Chancellor of the Exchequer, replacing Rishi Sunak, while Steve Barclay takes Sajid Javid’s former role as health secretary. Michelle Donelan was named education secretary following Zahawi’s promotion.
The rapid appointments are part of Johnson’s fightback and an attempt to shift the narrative after the devastating blow of Sunak and Javid quitting in quick succession late Tuesday. Yet he’s by no means out of the woods, with rebel Conservatives still seeking ways to oust him over a series of scandals that have eroded his standing.
On Wednesday, he faces Prime Minister’s Questions and then what could be a grueling session of Parliament’s powerful Liaison Committee, where lawmakers will probe him on “integrity in politics and the rule of law.”
“The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously,” Sunak wrote in his resignation letter. “I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning.”
Tory anger at Johnson has been building for months over his conduct in office, including becoming the first sitting premier found to have broken the law when he was fined over the illegal parties in Downing Street during the pandemic.
The latest row was triggered last week when Tory MP Chris Pincher resigned as a government whip, or political enforcer, following newspaper allegations he had groped two men. That was damaging to Johnson, who had promoted Pincher to the role in February in a bid to bolster his own faltering support.
Yet the crisis deepened when more allegations against Pincher emerged over the weekend, and Downing Street was forced to change its position about exactly what Johnson knew and when.
With Johnson’s press office battling accusations of lying, Johnson was forced to make a televised address to acknowledge it had been a “mistake” to promote Pincher in February—two years after being told of a complaint against him.
While Pincher has denied allegations of specific incidents, he said in his resignation letter he’d “embarrassed” himself and “caused upset” to others. He and his office haven’t replied to repeated requests for comment.
“It was a mistake and I apologize for it,” Johnson said of Pincher’s promotion. “In hindsight it was the wrong thing to do. I want to make absolutely clear that there’s no place in this government for anybody who is predatory or who abuses their position of power.”
The scandal plays directly into the broader narrative about Johnson that has undermined his standing in the party, less than three years after he led the Tories to a thumping general election victory.
For many rebels, the rot started when Johnson launched an ultimately botched effort to save a Tory colleague found to have broken Parliament ethics rules. Johnson’s own approval rating has taken a hammering over “partygate,” and the Tories lost two Parliament seats on a single day last month as voters punished the government in the middle of a cost of living crisis.
After narrowly failing to oust Johnson in a confidence vote last month, Tory rebels had been calling on senior cabinet ministers to take matters into their own hands. On Tuesday, Sunak and Javid granted that wish—though the domino effect they may have hoped for in the cabinet failed to materialize.
Johnson made clear he’s not planning to make it easy for the rebels by resigning, and the promotion of Zahawi, who made his name as vaccines minister during the pandemic, will be seen as a reward for both loyalty and competence. Johnson’s allies were also out in force after the resignations.
“Chancellors do resign, but it doesn’t necessarily have an effect on government,” Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said in an interview with Sky News. “Losing chancellors is something that happens.”
Even so, Tuesday’s events leave Johnson dramatically weakened. Losing Sunak comes at a critical time for the economy, with households in the grip of the worst squeeze on living standards for a generation and strikes breaking out in many parts of the workforce.
Two of Johnson’s signature policies have also foundered. Six years since he successfully urged Britons to voted to leave the European Union, the economic arguments for doing so have failed to bear fruit. He also made “leveling up” the country his defining economic agenda, but failed to draw up a coherent set of policies to carry it out beyond long-established infrastructure investment.
A wounded Johnson will now find it even harder to keep the various factions of his Tory party onside as he tries to tackle the problems facing the U.K. Ultimately, his survival remains a numbers game, with the rebels striving to gain a majority they need to make his position untenable—perhaps most likely by changing party rules to allow another confidence vote.
There were signs the Sunak and Javid resignations have further galvanized the rebels. Late on Tuesday, Alex Chalk resigned as solicitor general, and even Jonathan Gullis, a vocal supporter of Johnson in the House of Commons, quit as a ministerial aide. Other junior figures in government did likewise, including Virginia Crosbie, a parliamentary private secretary.
“I know you love this country,” Crosbie said in her resignation letter. “You can serve it one last time by leaving office.”
—With assistance from Philip Aldrick and Andrew Atkinson
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