LONDON — With his support crumbling, his government in disarray, his alibis exhausted, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried frantically to salvage his position on Wednesday, even as a delegation of cabinet colleagues marched to Downing Street to beg their scandal-scarred leader to resign.
More than 30 ministers or government aides quit, several Conservative Party lawmakers urged Mr Johnson to quit, and he received a scathing reception in Parliament, where backbench MPs scoffed, ‘Bye, Boris !” as he left through a side door after a ruthless grilling over his handling of the party’s latest sex and bullying scandal.
On a day of rapid developments, Mr Johnson vowed to fight back, insisting he had a mandate from the voters to steer Britain towards its post-Brexit future, even as rebel ministers try to dislodge him. But elsewhere in Westminster, lawmakers weighed – then postponed, for a few days at least – a change to party rules that would allow another vote of confidence, possibly next week, against the Prime Minister, who survived a such a vote barely a month ago.
There was a growing consensus that however events unfold over the next few hours or days, the curtain was falling on the era of Boris Johnson. Less than three years after entering Downing Street, before riding a wave of pro-Brexit passion to win a landslide election victory, Mr Johnson seemed cornered – a protean political player ultimately out of breath.
This does not mean that the end will come quickly or gracefully. Mr Johnson has resisted calls from the cabinet delegation to resign. He has not ruled out calling a snap election to cast his spell on British voters. Such a decision would require the assent of Queen Elizabeth II, which could precipitate a political crisis.
“The job of a Prime Minister in difficult circumstances, when he has been given a colossal mandate, is to carry on,” grim-faced Mr Johnson told Parliament, rejecting a fresh call for his resignation.
For all the drama in Parliament, the real action on Wednesday took place out of sight, where Mr Johnson’s dwindling group of supporters and growing group of opponents maneuvered. One of his main allies, Michael Gove, told the Prime Minister in a private meeting that the time had come for Mr Johnson to leave. Later on Wednesday, the BBC reported that Mr Johnson had fired Mr Gove.
Later on Wednesday, UK Attorney General Suella Braverman called on Mr Johnson to step down and said she would stand for election to replace him if he did. “If there’s a leadership race, I’ll put my name in the ring,” she told ITV.
The latest chapter in the crisis began on Tuesday when two senior ministers abruptly resigned: Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid. The trigger was Mr Johnson’s handling of a case involving Chris Pincher, a Tory lawmaker who admitted to being drunk at a private club in London where he was alleged to have groped two men.
Their departures have sparked a rebellion against Mr Johnson within his party that has been building against him for months, fueled by a stream of embarrassing reports of social gatherings in Downing Street that breached the government’s own coronavirus lockdown rules .
Given the speed with which Mr Johnson’s government is collapsing, many Tory lawmakers believe Mr Johnson must be replaced quickly to mitigate electoral damage to the party.
Opposition Leader Keir Starmer has excoriated Mr Johnson and cabinet ministers who have yet to abandon the Prime Minister after a seemingly endless stream of scandals.
‘Anyone who quits now, having stood up for all of this, has no shred of integrity,’ said Labor leader Mr Starmer, looking grimly at Mr Johnson across a table. “Isn’t this the first recorded case of the sinking ship fleeing rats?”