British Prime Minister Boris Johnson battled to remain in office on Wednesday, brushing off calls for his resignation after two top ministers and a slew of junior officials said they could no longer serve under his scandal-plagued leadership.
Johnson rejected demands that he step down during a stormy session of the House of Commons, amid a furore over his handling of sexual misconduct allegations against a senior official. Later in the day, a delegation of some of his most trusted allies in the Cabinet paid a visit to the prime minister at 10 Downing Street to urge him to go, but he remained unmoved, Britain’s Press Association reported.
The prime minister turned down suggestions that he seek a “dignified exit” and opted instead to fight for his political career, citing “hugely important issues facing the country,” according to the news agency. It quoted a source close to Johnson as saying he told colleagues there would be “chaos” if he quit.
The 58-year-old leader, who pulled Britain out of the European Union and steered it through the COVID-19 outbreak, is known for his ability to wiggle out of tight spots, managing to remain in power despite allegations that he was too close to party donors, that he protected supporters from bullying and corruption allegations, and that he misled Parliament about government office parties that broke pandemic lockdown rules.
He hung on even when 41 per cent of Conservative lawmakers voted to oust him in a no-confidence vote last month.
But recent disclosures that Johnson knew about sexual misconduct allegations against a lawmaker before he promoted the man to a senior position pushed him to the brink.
In holding on to his office, Johnson is attempting to defy the mathematics of parliamentary government and the traditions of British politics. It is rare for a prime minister to cling to power in the face of this much pressure from his Cabinet colleagues.
“He is now besmirching our democracy, and if he doesn’t do the right thing and go of his own accord, then he’ll be dragged out,” Scottish National Party leader Ian Blackford told the BBC.
Many of Johnson’s fellow Conservatives were concerned that he no longer had the moral authority to govern at a time when difficult decisions are needed to address soaring food and energy prices, rising COVID-19 infections and the war in Ukraine. Others worry that he may now be a liability at the ballot box.
On Wednesday, members of the opposition Labour Party showered Johnson with shouts of “Go! Go!” during the weekly ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer mockingly said of the resignations surrounding Johnson, “Isn’t it the first recorded case of the sinking ship fleeing the rat?”
More damningly, members of Johnson’s own Conservative Party – wearied by the many scandals he has faced – also challenged their leader.
“Frankly … the job of the prime minister in difficult circumstances, when he’s been handed a colossal mandate, is to keep going,” Johnson replied with the bluster he has used to fend off critics throughout nearly three years in office. “And that’s what I’m going to do.”
Former Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who helped trigger the current crisis when he resigned on Tuesday night, captured the mood of many lawmakers when he said Johnson’s actions threaten to undermine the integrity of the Conservative Party and the British government.
“At some point we have to conclude that enough is enough,” he told fellow lawmakers. “I believe that point is now.”