Boris Johnson was clinging to power on Tuesday night, after chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid dramatically resigned from the cabinet within minutes of each other.
Downing Street was braced for more ministers quitting, with many Tory MPs believing the exit of two senior ministers could signal the beginning of the end for Johnson.
But there was relief in Downing Street when a number of other ministers — including deputy prime minister Dominic Raab, foreign secretary Liz Truss, defence secretary Ben Wallace and levelling up secretary Michael Gove — indicated they were staying.
Many Conservative MPs believe Johnson’s premiership is approaching its end; last month more than 40 per cent of MPs expressed no confidence in their leader and cabinet unity has broken.
Sunak and Javid criticised the prime minister’s conduct, with Sunak saying in a excoriating resignation letter: “The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously.”
On a day in which Johnson’s honesty was called into question, Sunak suggested the prime minister was prepared to deceive voters over the parlous state facing the economy and the need for “difficult decisions”.
“I believe the public are ready to hear the truth,” he said, adding that Johnson and he “fundamentally” disagreed over economic policy. “Our people know that if something is too good to be true, then it’s not true.”
Loyal Tory MPs said Johnson had told them he was now more likely to propose early tax cuts, a policy popular with Tory rightwingers but which Sunak fears could fuel inflation as it heads towards double digits.
Sunak’s resignation came minutes after his old friend Javid quit. In his letter, Javid said: “The tone you set as a leader, the values you represent, reflect on your colleagues, your party and ultimately the country.”
The resignations of Sunak and Javid followed the forced departure of disgraced former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher last week, after allegations that he groped two men while drunk at a private members’ club.
Downing Street insisted for days that Johnson had not been told about “specific allegations” of misconduct by Pincher in the past. On Tuesday Johnson admitted he had been briefed about the allegations in 2019 — but had forgotten about it. “It’s an absolute disgrace,” said one minister.
With ministers unwilling to publicly defend Johnson, the prime minister gave an interview to the BBC before the resignations where he apologised for appointing Pincher as deputy chief whip in February. “With hindsight it was the wrong thing to do,” he said.
But even as Johnson’s belated apology was being broadcast Javid announced his resignation. The health secretary, who had previously resigned as chancellor in 2020 after a power struggle with Number 10, believes he can be a unifying figure as a future Tory leader.
Javid said in his resignation letter: “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.”
Sunak’s allies insisted the dual resignations were not co-ordinated, but their departure from the cabinet now means Johnson has two potential leadership rivals sitting on the backbenches.
The former chancellor said that he and Johnson took an approach to the economy that was “fundamentally too different”; a proposed joint economic speech by the two men proved impossible to agree.
One ministerial ally of Sunak said the main difference between the outgoing chancellor and prime minister was that “one is sound, the other one is a clown”.
Johnson will now have to move swiftly to appoint a new chancellor, with Simon Clarke, Treasury chief secretary, and Steve Barclay, Johnson’s chief of staff and a former Treasury minister, tipped as potential replacements.
Markets will be watching for signals of what the change of chancellor will mean for future economic policy, including the possibility of a looser fiscal regime which could force the Bank of England to hike interest rates faster.
A number of Conservative MPs called for Johnson to quit on Tuesday night. Next week the party will elect a new executive of the backbench 1922 committee, which sets the rules for leadership contests.
An anti-Johnson slate of candidates is expected to push for a change in the party rules to allow another early no confidence vote in the prime minister; current rules say such a ballot can only happen every 12 months.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, said: “After all the sleaze, the scandals and the failure, it’s clear that this government is now collapsing.” Sir Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat leader, said: “A house of cards built on lies and deceit comes crashing down.”