Boris Johnson’s prime ministership was looking fatally undermined on Wednesday as he was hit by a string of new ministerial resignations, while a series of previously loyal backbench MPs withdrew support over the Chris Pincher affair.
A day after Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, and the health secretary, Sajid Javid, quit government, followed by several junior ministers, two more ministers and one government aide announced their departure, giving a total of more than a dozen.
Arguably even more damaging to Johnson, several previously loyal backbench MPs said they could no longer back the prime minister, citing No 10’s changing story about why Pincher was appointed deputy chief whip despite allegations about groping.
Will Quince resigned as children’s minister, having been sent out to defend the government’s position about Pincher on Monday morning, a stance that was reversed within hours.
Quince said he had “no choice” after he appeared on television to defend Johnson using Downing Street briefings, “which have now been found to be inaccurate”.
Soon afterwards the schools minister, Robin Walker, a stalwart of a series of ministerial jobs under Johnson and before him Theresa May, said he was stepping down. “Unfortunately, recent events have made it clear to me that our great party, for which I have campaigned all my adult life, has become distracted from its core missions by a relentless focus on questions over leadership,” Walker wrote in a letter to the prime minister.
Johnson’s achievements, Walker added, had become overshadowed by mistakes and questions about integrity.
Victoria Atkins resigned as a justice minister, saying in her letter to Johnson: “I can no longer pirouette around our fractured values.”
John Glen, a longstanding Treasury minister, stepped down citing Johnson’s “poor judgment” over Pincher. Felicity Buchan, a junior aide in the business department, also stepped down, telling Johnson he had “lost the confidence of my constituents and me”.
Laura Trott, a parliamentary aide in the transport department, also resigned, as well as Alex Chalk, the solicitor general, late on Thursday night.
In another blow to Johnson, the influential backbencher Robert Halfon announced on Wednesday he could no longer support the prime minister, saying he felt “the public have been misled” over the resignation of Pincher after further allegations of groping, the catalyst for the escalation of the crisis.
“The parties at 10 Downing Street and were bad enough, but the appointment of this individual [Pincher] and the untruthful statements about what was known, is unacceptable to me,” Halfon wrote.
Within minutes of Halfon’s statement, Lee Anderson, the previously loyalist MP for Ashfield, said the Pincher case meant he, too, was withdrawing support. “I cannot look myself in the mirror and accept this,” Anderson said in a Facebook post. “It is my belief that our PM has got all the big decisions right and guided us through the most difficult time in my life time and I have always backed him to the hilt. That said, integrity should always come first and sadly this has not been the case over the past few days.”
The former minister Chris Skidmore then sent a damning letter in which he said Johnson had “not been truthful” in claiming no knowledge about previous allegations about Pincher’s conduct when the deputy chief whip resigned last week after being accused of drunkenly groping two men. “This is an extremely grave situation that is tantamount to an effective cover-up of sexual abuse that would never be tolerated in any normal, functioning workplace.”
Nadhim Zahawi, who was moved from education secretary to become chancellor, meanwhile told broadcasters he would get on with his main task of bearing down on inflation.
Zahawi also said the prime minister was “right to apologise” over his appointment of Pincher despite having been told there were allegations about Pincher’s inappropriate behaviour. Zahawi told LBC: “I think the prime minister is right to apologise, because with the benefit of hindsight … we make decisions literally at warp speed. The right thing he did, in my view, was to come out and very, very openly say: ‘Look, with the benefit of hindsight, I made a mistake.’”
Asked when the prime minister remembered he had been briefed about specific allegations regarding Pincher, Zahawi said: “All I would say to you is when the prime minister realised he’d made a mistake, he came out and explained that. He said with the benefit of hindsight that I made a mistake. I think that’s good leadership to come out and say that, to say: ‘Look, you know, I don’t get every decision right.’”