Boris Johnson’s turbulent three-year presidency was coming to an end on Wednesday night after he was urged to leave by a delegation of his closest cabinet allies on a night of chaos in Downing Street.
As his premiership hung in a thread, the British Prime Minister retaliated by firing Michael Gove, one of the ministers who told him to leave, in a sign that Johnson intended to go down and fight.
Johnson was warned that unless he resigned, there would be further resignations, followed by an inevitable humiliating defeat by Tory MPs in a no-confidence vote next week.
Gove had been the first minister to ask Johnson to resign. A state insider said: “Michael essentially told him it’s time to go – it’s over.” A number 10 source told the BBC that Gove was “a snake”.
Johnson told the ministers he would fight on and in fact dared them to resign. Simon Hart, Welsh secretary, was the only additional minister to step down in protest of Johnson’s irreconcilability at 11pm on Wednesday.
But Suella Braverman, the pro-Brexit prosecutor and ally of Johnson, told ITV’s Peston that there was “an overwhelming sense of despair among conservative MPs”, adding that it was time for the prime minister to resign. She said she would be a candidate for any leadership election.
Despite the growing demand for his resignation, the prime minister warned that if he resigned, there would be a chaotic leadership competition in Tory in the midst of an economic crisis.
“There would be three months of tearing each other apart,” said an ally of Johnson. “We would elect a leader without a mandate, which would cause the opposition to demand an election that the Conservatives would lose.”
Johnson’s power drained away during a dramatic day in which more than 40 government layoffs were witnessed and many more Tory MPs condemned his character and integrity.
It ended with the Prime Minister being confronted in Downing Street by once-loyal cabinet ministers – including the newly appointed Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi – and being told to resign with dignity. “The game is over,” a minister said.
Even Priti Patel, the interior minister closely associated with Johnson’s tough immigration policy, told him that the mood in the party had gone strongly against him and that he should go, according to government insiders.
But Downing Street insiders said Johnson would not resign, pointing to his 2019 election mandate, adding he would fill vacancies left by outgoing ministers. But Whitehall sources told the Financial Times that some job offers were rejected by Tory MPs.
Meanwhile, Johnson told ministers he would draft a new economic plan, including the offer of tax cuts and more deregulation, in a joint speech with Zahawi next week.
After months of criticism of Johnson over his leadership and integrity – focused on his handling of the partygate case – the deterioration of the prime minister’s authority has been rapid.
The drop for many was Johnson’s untruthful account of what he knew about the previous sexual abuse of Chris Pincher, whom he appointed deputy chief whip in February and who resigned in disgrace last week after drunkenly groping two men in a private membership club.
Sajid Javid, who resigned as health minister on Tuesday, questioned Johnson’s ‘truth and integrity’ and lamented the fact that ministers were sent out to defend positions that were not “under control”. In a powerful farewell speech, he told MPs: “Enough is enough.”
Many other ministers and Tory MPs have reached the same conclusion, and Chris Heaton-Harris, chief whip, was among those who told Johnson he would now lose a vote of confidence that could come early next week.
Grant Shapps, the Secretary of Transportation who previously advised Johnson on parliamentary arithmetic, warned that he had “little chance” of winning the vote and should resign with dignity.
Elections to the board of directors of the Tory 1922 committee on the back table will take place next Monday with the expectation that the new team will change the party rules to allow an immediate vote of confidence.
The prime minister cut a diminished number in Question Time in the House of Commons, insisting he would “keep going” – but to the almost silence of conservative MPs behind him.
Johnson, who became prime minister less than three years ago, insisted he had secured a “colossal mandate” from voters in the December 2019 election.
But over the course of the day, ministerial resignations flooded in, raising questions about whether Johnson would be able to find enough Tory MPs willing to fill the vacancies that remain.
Loyal ministers including Shapps, Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary and Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis later told Johnson he had to quit before things got worse.
Nadine Dorries, culture secretary and ultra-loyalist, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister of Brexit opportunities, are said by government officials to have urged Johnson to fight on.
Wednesday night, Johnson was in talks with his closest advisers in Downing Street when his premiership hung in a thread.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labor leader, seemed to recognize that Johnson’s departure was a given conclusion, attacking his potential successors as “a Z-list of nodding dogs”.
A 1922 board member said lawmakers wanted a leadership contest to begin as soon as possible to get a new leader to replace Johnson before the fall.