The British prime minister Boris Johnson faced interrogation on Wednesday from members of parliament after two of the most senior ministers in his cabinet stepped down. Finance Minister Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid both said they could no longer support the culture of scandal surrounding Johnson’s tenure.
The two ministers resigned after several days of shifting explanations from Johnson’s Downing Street office about a sex scandal that involved a mid-ranking ally of Johnson.
The prime minister is under fire over his promotion of junior minister Chris Pincher to the role of chief whip — a key position that involves enforcing party discipline. The promotion came despite Pincher being accused of drunkenly groping two men and Johnson having been made aware of the allegations.
‘Sinking ships fleeing the rat’
Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, who led the grilling at the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions session, said anyone who remained a minister in Johnson’s government was tainted.
“Anyone quitting now after defending all that hasn’t got a shred of integrity … Isn’t this the first recorded case of the sinking ships fleeing the rat?”
“He’s only in power because he’s been propped up for months by a corrupted party defending the indefensible.”
PM admits regret but vows to go on
Johnson confirmed that the issue of sexual misconduct had been raised when Pincher was a junior minister in the foreign office and that he had been made aware of the allegations.
“The matter was resolved. It’s absolutely true that it was raised with me. I greatly regret that he [Pincher] continued in office and I’ve said that before.
“It is now the subject of an independent investigation and that is the right thing,” the prime minister added, before going on to defend his government’s record.
Team analogy from departed minister
Speaking in parliament shortly afterwards, former minister Javid — who has already resigned once before under Johnson as prime minister — said he felt compelled to resign, despite being “a team player”.
“Treading the tightrope between loyalty and integrity has become impossible in recent months … I will never risk losing my integrity.
“I also believe a team is as good as its team captain and that a captain is as good as his or her team. So, loyalty must go both ways. The events of recent months have made it increasingly difficult to be in that team.”
Sunak, who did not speak, tweeted on Tuesday that “the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously”.
“I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning.”
What’s behind the resignations?
Both ministers resigned minutes after Johnson appeared on television to apologise for appointing Pincher to the role, despite being aware of the allegations.
Johnson is alleged to have joked about the claims, referring to the lawmaker as “Pincher by name, pincher by nature” in 2020.
However, the prime minister’s office had said at first that it was not aware of any complaints against Pincher, but later changed this to “specific complaints”.
Downing Street then said it was not aware of “serious specific allegations” and subsequently that it was not aware that the accusations had been substantiated.
This account was refuted by the top civil servant in the UK foreign office from 2015 to 2020, who said the complaints about Pincher had been upheld. In a highly unusual move for a civil servant, Simon McDonald publicly claimed that Johnson’s office had repeatedly failed to tell the truth.
The revelations are the latest in a string of scandals involving Johnson, who has been fined by police for lockdown-breaching parties. Last month, he survived a no-confidence vote that saw 41% of Conservative lawmakers vote to topple him.
A string of other, more junior, ministers announced their resignations on Wednesday, citing the culture of scandal as the reason they were leaving their posts.
Meanwhile, Conservative Party lawmakers Chris Skidmore and Tom Hunt submitted letters of no confidence in the prime minister, intensifying calls for his resignation.