Boris Johnson hanging by a thread as Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid walk out

·9 min read
Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid resigned within minutes of each other on Tuesday
Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid resigned within minutes of each other on Tuesday

Boris Johnson was battling to save his premiership on Tuesday night after two of his most senior Cabinet ministers resigned within 10 minutes of each other.

First Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, and then Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, published letters on their Twitter accounts explaining why they could not remain in their posts.

Mr Johnson scrambled to fill the gaps on the front bench even as further resignations from government positions were announced.

Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, was named as the new Chancellor. It is understood Mr Johnson and Mr Zahawi agreed on the need for tax cuts to secure growth in their one-on-one meeting on Tuesday night.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, will replace Mr Zahawi as Education Secretary, while Steve Barclay, the Downing Street chief of staff, was appointed to replace Mr Javid as Health Secretary.

But the Solicitor General, four parliamentary private secretaries, and a Tory vice-chairman followed Mr Javid and Mr Sunak out of the door, with speculation that more resignations are to come. In total 10 Tory MPs quit official roles on Tuesday.

Mr Johnson will on Wednesday face Prime Minister’s Questions, as well as an appearance in front of the liaison committee of senior backbenchers, as he tries to regain control of his party.

Addressing a group of around 80 Tory MPs in a pre-arranged meeting on Tuesday, moments after the resignations were announced, the Prime Minister made it clear that he would carry on. In a swipe at Mr Sunak, he indicated that tax cuts would be easier to deliver after the developments.

A snap YouGov poll found 54 per cent of Conservative voters said Mr Johnson should resign, up by 20 percentage points from June 9. However, just one in five Britons believe he will step down.

In his resignation letter, the Chancellor revealed splits on economic policy and hinted that he believed the Prime Minister’s plans to both raise spending and cut tax were unrealistic, saying: “Our people know if something is too good to be true then it’s not true.”

It came minutes after Mr Javid, in his letter, said the British people expected “integrity” and criticised the lack of “humility” and “grip” in Downing Street as he withdrew his confidence in Mr Johnson.

Mr Javid announced his resignation on Twitter at 6.02pm, while Mr Sunak tweeted his letter at 6.11pm. Aides to both on Tuesday night insisted they did not co-ordinate their resignations, reaching their conclusions independently and not discussing timings with each other.

Just hours earlier, both had sat at the Cabinet table as Mr Johnson addressed them with the cameras rolling. Commentators noted that many around the table looked downcast.

The Telegraph can reveal that both Mr Sunak, who sat next to the Prime Minister at the Cabinet meeting, and Mr Javid had already discussed resigning with close aides.

Mr Javid talked to allies about quitting on Sunday. On Monday morning, Mr Sunak made clear to his inner circle that he planned to resign. Both conversations were before the Cabinet met.

The departures came after a day in which Downing Street’s stance on what Mr Johnson had known about disgraced MP Chris Pincher and allegations of sexual impropriety disintegrated.

Number 10 had said the Prime Minister was never briefed on past claims against Mr Pincher, but Lord McDonald, a former top civil servant in the Foreign Office, went public on Tuesday morning to insist Mr Johnson had been briefed on one claim.

Downing Street later admitted that was the case, arguing that he had failed to recall the briefing. The fiasco renewed concern on the Tory benches over the Government’s direction.

There was no indication from Mr Johnson or his closest allies on Tuesday night that he intended to step down, with a speedy Cabinet reshuffle being carried out in the hours after Mr Sunak and Mr Javid quit.

Mr Sunak and Mr Johnson have been at loggerheads over economic policy for months, with both keen on cutting tax but with differing views on how to achieve that.

The former chancellor’s press team declined to respond to Mr Johnson’s jibe about tax cuts. Both Mr Sunak and Mr Javid remained silent in the hours after their resignation letters.

The resignations fuelled hopes among Tory rebels that they could topple Mr Johnson imminently, with one publicly vowing a new push to change the leadership rules to allow another confidence vote.

The Prime Minister is currently protected for the best part of a year, having won a confidence vote last month, but the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers is able to change those rules. Elections for its executive, which decides the rules, are expected next week.

Mr Sunak wrote in his resignation letter: “To leave ministerial office is a serious matter at any time. For me to step down as Chancellor while the world is suffering the economic consequences of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and other serious challenges is a decision that I have not taken lightly.

“However, the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously. I recognise this may be my last ministerial job, but I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning.”

Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson - Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images
Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson - Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

He also made it clear the pair had differences over how to deliver tax cuts and secure economic growth, with forecasts suggesting recession is looming.

“We both want a low-tax, high-growth economy and world class public services, but this can only be responsibly delivered if we are prepared to work hard, make sacrifices and take difficult decisions,” he wrote.

“I firmly believe the public are ready to hear that truth. Our people know that if something is too good to be true then it’s not true. They need to know that whilst there is a path to a better future, it is not an easy one.

“In preparation for our proposed joint speech on the economy next week, it has become clear to me that our approaches are fundamentally too different. I am sad to be leaving Government, but I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that we cannot continue like this.”

In his response to Mr Sunak, the Prime Minister listed their achievements during the Covid pandemic, adding: “Through all of this, you have not shied from the tough decisions needed to repair our public finances whilst protecting public services and boosting economic growth.” He said he would “miss” working with him in government.

Mr Javid wrote in his resignation letter: “I am instinctively a team player, but the British people also rightly expect integrity from their government. The tone you set as a leader, and the values you represent, reflect on your colleagues, your party and ultimately the country.

“Conservatives at their best are seen as hard-headed decision-makers, guided by strong values. We may not have always been popular, but we have been competent in acting in the national interest.

“Sadly, in the current circumstances, the public are concluding that we are now neither. The vote of confidence last month showed that a large number of our colleagues agree. It was a moment for humility, grip and new direction.

“I regret to say, however, that it is clear to me that this situation will not change under your leadership – and you have therefore lost my confidence too.”

Moments before the letters dropped, Mr Johnson had done a short TV interview apologising for making Mr Pincher deputy chief whip in an attempt to stem the damage over Downing Street’s handling of the row.

Mr Pincher resigned from his post last week after being accused of drunkenly groping two men. Since then, new allegations about his behaviour have emerged.

Alex Chalk, the Solicitor General, became the third government minister to resign on Tuesday.

He said in a resignation letter: “The Prime Minister needs a Solicitor General who can defend the course and culture set on his watch. I regret I no longer can.”

Four parliamentary private secretaries also resigned in the wake of Mr Javid and Mr Sunak. Jonathan Gullis, previously thought of as one of the most loyal MPs in the 2019 intake, said he was resigning from the Government “with a heavy heart”.

“I have been a member of the Conservative Party my entire adult life, a party I believe represents opportunity for all,” he said. “I feel for too long we have been more focused on dealing with our reputational damage rather than delivering for the people of this country and spreading opportunity for all, which is why I came into politics.”

Saqib Bhatti, who was a parliamentary private secretary to Mr Javid, said: “I feel that standards in public life are of the utmost importance, and the events of the past few months have undermined the public trust in all of us. I have been grappling with these issues for some time, and my conscience will not allow me to continue to support this administration.”

Nicola Richards, a parliamentary private secretary at the Department for Transport, criticised “poor judgment that I don’t wish to be associated with”, while Virginia Crosbie, a parliamentary private secretary in the Wales Office, said Mr Johnson’s position was “untenable”.

But several of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet loyalists rallied around him following the resignations. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit opportunities minister, said he thought Mr Johnson would stay in office for longer than Sir Robert Walpole, who served for 21 years.

Asked on Sky News whether Mr Johnson was a man of integrity and probity, Mr  Rees-Mogg said: “Yes. He won the confidence vote and if there is another confidence vote, we’ll see what happens. He might very well win another.”

A senior Government source praised Mr Zahawi as a “wealth creator”, a nod to his past building the polling company YouGov, and said he backed tax cuts.

The source said: “The role of the Chancellor now is not just to balance the books and fund public services but actually drive growth. We have someone with a dynamism and drive that is needed at this stage.”

As Mr Johnson’s premiership came under renewed pressure, Theresa May, his predecessor forced from office in 2019, was at the Royal Opera House watching a performance of Pagliacci – which translated means “Clowns”.

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