Boris Johnson’s Conservative government is in deep crisis, engulfed once more in a scandal that is at least in part of the Prime Minister’s own making.
And this time, it’s a lot worse than all the other times.
On Tuesday evening, after days in which Downing Street has been on the ropes over its handling of allegations of sexual misconduct by a member of the government, two senior Cabinet ministers quit.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said he could not “in good conscience” continue. Finance minister Rishi Sunak also resigned, saying that people “rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously.” Since then, two further ministers have stepped down and multiple Conservative Members of Parliament have publicly withdrawn their support for Johnson’s leadership.
Johnson is still in control of his own fate, for now. Conservative party rules dictate that if a leader wins a confidence vote, as he did in June, then they are immune from another challenge for 12 months.
However, so severe is Johnson’s case that it’s possible the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers might rewrite the rules in order to get rid of him.
The 1922 executive is expected to meet on Wednesday in order to fix a date for elections as to who should be on the committee. If a large enough number of anti-Boris MPs are elected to the executive, then the chances of the rules changing increases dramatically.
Until that point, the real question is just how much public humiliation can the PM take?
More ministers will almost certainly resign and opposition sources are talking up the prospect of defections. At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Johnson said “the job of a Prime Minister in difficult circumstances when he has been handed a colossal mandate is to keep going and that’s what I’m going to do.”
But he was eviscerated by opposition MPs, with Labour leader Keir Starmer describing his efforts to cling to power as “a pathetic spectacle” and calling his remaining supporters “a Z-list cast of nodding dogs.”
The immediate cause of the crisis was the fallout from the resignation last Thursday of deputy chief whip Chris Pincher, amid allegations he had groped two guests at a private dinner the night before. While he did not admit the allegations directly, Pincher said in a letter to Johnson that “last night I drank far too much” and “embarrassed myself and other people.”
What landed Johnson in deeper trouble, though, were the contortions that Downing Street press officers went into trying to explain why Pincher was ever in government in the first place, amid a wave of revelations of his previous conduct. On Tuesday, a senior former civil servant published a letter effectively accusing Downing Street of not telling the truth when it said the Prime Minister was not aware of at least one of the historical allegations.
In an effort to draw a line under the swirling controversy, Johnson issued a statement in which he apologized and said he was wrong to have reappointed Pincher to the whip’s office – which, ironically, is responsible for party discipline – earlier this year. But that was overtaken within minutes by the resignation of the two Cabinet members.
In Parliament on Wednesday, he said “regret(s) very much” promoting Pincher despite concerns about his behavior, adding: “In hindsight, I should have realized that he would not change.”
The details of how Downing Street got itself into such a mess bear laying out. At first, when new reports of Pincher’s historical conduct emerged in the light of his resignation, Downing Street initially denied the Prime Minister knew anything about the allegations.
When it became clear this would not hold, Johnson’s team said he had known about the historical allegations, but that they had been “resolved.” When it emerged that one of the previously unreported allegations against Pincher had been upheld, Johnson’s spokesperson explained that “resolved” could mean that it had been upheld.
Then on Tuesday morning, Simon McDonald, the former top civil servant at the Foreign Office revealed that Johnson had been briefed in person about the outcome of an investigation into Pincher’s conduct.
Regardless of any justification Downing Street has attempted to provide, Johnson’s judgment – and his handling of this latest crisis – is now in serious doubt.
A common theme of the plethora of scandals surrounding him – from “Partygate,” when Johnson was fined by police for breaching lockdown rules, to his attempts to protect an MP who had breached lobbying rules – is how the government has mishandled the fallout from the initial problem.
“The biggest threat to this government is its own staggering incompetence,” said one senior government official. “Discipline has completely broken down.”
“The team around the Prime Minister seems to have no idea how badly it’s going,” they added. “No one is good at giving interviews. We cannot stick to a single line. We’ve completely lost control.”
A government minister told CNN they believe that one key problem is that Johnson sets the tone for behavior.
“It’s hard for someone with a personal life as colorful as his to reprimand people for behaving inappropriately,” they said.
The growing sense of chaos – and the view that the government has lost control of yet another story – is doing nothing for Conservatives who think Johnson has become the party’s biggest electoral turn-off.
Both the Prime Minister’s personal approval ratings and the party’s polling numbers have plummeted since the Partygate scandal broke. Trust in Johnson as a leader appears to be breaking down both with the public and with his own MPs. Conservative Party lawmakers tried – and failed – to unseat him last month.
But Conservative MPs are starting to lose hope that even if Johnson is removed from power, it won’t be possible to undo the damage he has done to the party before the next scheduled election in 2024.
Even more worryingly for those who have lost faith in the PM, he seems determined to fight on.
This alarms Conservative MPs, especially those in marginal seats who have all but given up hope of retaining them. Few of them think that Johnson has any real grip on how bad things have got – and they can’t see a way to make the Prime Minister see sense.
The government’s poor handling of Pincher’s resignation means the scandal is now tied to Johnson personally. He was the one who chose to appoint Pincher to a top job in government – despite knowing how serious the allegations against him were, and even though he was aware that a complaint against him had been upheld.
For years, Johnson’s main selling point has been his ability to connect with voters, personally. His brand of optimistic populism was – so Conservative MPs thought – the force of nature that had made a majority of the British public vote for Brexit in 2016 and had given the Tories a parliamentary majority of 80 in 2019.
But as Johnson’s government veers from one crisis to the next, his MPs now fear they are learning the hard way just what happens when a populist loses their popularity.