LONDON – His support is crumbling, his government in disarray, his alibis exhausted, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson frantically tried to salvage his position on Wednesday, even as a delegation of cabinet colleagues traveled to Downing Street to plead with their scandal-battered leader before resigning.
More than 30 government ministers or aides resigned, multiple Conservative Party lawmakers urged Johnson to resign, and he received a scathing reception in parliament, where back seats taunted “Bye, Boris!” as he left through a side door after a merciless grievance over his handling of the party’s latest sex and bullying scandal.
On a day of rapid developments, Mr Johnson vowed to fight on, insisting he had a voter mandate to usher Britain into its post-Brexit future, even as rebellious ministers try to oust him. But elsewhere in Westminster, lawmakers weighed in — and then postponed, for at least a few days — a change to party rules that would allow for another confidence vote, possibly next week, against the prime minister, who survived such a vote just a month ago.
There was a growing consensus that, however events unfold in the hours or days to come, the curtain fell on the Boris Johnson era. Less than three years after he entered Downing Street, before experiencing a wave of pro-Brexit passion to clinch a landslide electoral victory, Mr Johnson appeared cornered – a Protean political gambler finally out of his moves .
That doesn’t mean the end will come quickly or gracefully. Mr Johnson opposed calls from the Cabinet delegation to resign. He does not rule out calling early elections to cast his fate to British voters. Such a move would require Queen Elizabeth II’s assent, which could spark a political crisis.
“The job of a prime minister in dire circumstances, when he has been given a colossal mandate, is to carry on,” said a grim face of Mr Johnson in parliament, again rejecting calls for his resignation.
Despite all the drama in Parliament, the real action took place out of sight on Wednesday, as Mr Johnson’s dwindling band of supporters and growing band of opponents maneuvered. One of his key allies, Michael Gove, told the Prime Minister in a private meeting that it was time for Mr Johnson to leave. Later Wednesday, the BBC reported that Mr Johnson had fired Mr Gove.
Later on Wednesday, British Attorney General Suella Braverman called on Mr Johnson to resign and said she would run for election to replace him if he did. “If there is a leadership contest I will put my name in the ring,” she told the network ITV.
The latest chapter in the crisis began on Tuesday when two senior ministers abruptly resigned: Finance Minister Rishi Sunak and Health Minister Sajid Javid. The trigger was Mr Johnson’s handling of a case involving Chris Pincher, a Conservative lawmaker who admitted to having been drunk at a private London club where he had allegedly groped two men.
Their departure sparked an uprising against Mr Johnson within his party that has been building against him for months, sparked by a torrent of embarrassing reports of Downing Street social gatherings violating the government’s own coronavirus lockdown rules.
Given the speed at which Mr Johnson’s government is falling apart, many Tory lawmakers believe that Mr Johnson must be replaced quickly to limit the electoral damage to the party.
The opposition leader, Keir Starmer, slammed Mr Johnson and the ministers who have yet to leave the prime minister after a seemingly endless stream of scandals.
“Anyone who stops now, after defending all that, has not a shred of integrity,” said Mr. Starmer, the leader of the Labor Party, ominously over a table to Mr. Johnson staring. “Isn’t this the first recorded case of the sinking ship fleeing from the rats?”