UK government seemingly following Israel’s lead as many ministers quit

Written by on July 6, 2022

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was clinging to power on Wednesday, gravely wounded by the resignation of ministers who said he was not fit to govern and with a growing number of lawmakers calling for him to go.

Johnson’s finance and health secretaries quit on Tuesday, along with several in more junior roles, saying they could no longer stay in government after the latest in a series of scandals blighted his administration. A further three ministers quit within half an hour of each other on Wednesday.

With mounting calls for Johnson to go, he showed his determination to stay in office by appointing businessman and Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi as his new finance minister and filling some of the other vacancies.

The level of hostility Johnson faces within his party will be laid bare later on Wednesday when he appears in parliament for his weekly question session, and before the chairs of select committees for a scheduled two-hour grilling.

“I suspect we will have to drag him kicking and screaming from Downing Street,” one Conservative lawmaker told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But if we have to do it that way then we will.”

Britain’s International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Prime Minister Boris Johnson attend a cabinet meeting in Downing Street in London, Britain. (credit: JUSTIN TALLIS/POOL VIA REUTERS)

Johnson, a former journalist and London mayor who became the face of Britain’s departure from the European Union, won a landslide election victory in 2019 before taking a combative and often chaotic approach to governing.

His leadership has been mired in scandals and missteps over the last few months, with the prime minister fined by police for breaking COVID-19 lockdown laws and a damning report published about the behavior of officials at his Downing Street office who breached their own lockdown rules. 

There have also been policy U-turns, an ill-fated defense of a lawmaker who broke lobbying rules, and criticism that he has not done enough to tackle a cost-of-living crisis, with many Britons struggling to cope with rising fuel and food prices.

The Times of London newspaper said Johnson’s “serial dishonesty” was “utterly corrosive” of effective government.

“Every day that he remains deepens the sense of chaos,” it said. “For the good of the country, he should go.”

The latest bout of drama at the heart of British power comes as the economy deteriorates rapidly, with some economists warning that the country could tip into recession.

Lost confidence

The latest scandal saw Johnson apologizing for appointing a lawmaker to a role involved in party welfare and discipline, even after being briefed that the politician had been the subject of complaints about sexual misconduct.

Downing Street’s narrative changed several times over what the prime minister knew of the past behavior of that politician, who was forced to resign, and when he knew it.

That prompted Rishi Sunak to quit as chancellor of the exchequer – the finance minister – and Sajid Javid to resign as health secretary, while ten others left their junior ministerial or envoy roles.

“It is clear to me that this situation will not change under your leadership – and you have therefore lost my confidence too,” Javid said in his resignation letter.

“It is clear to me that this situation will not change under your leadership – and you have therefore lost my confidence too.”

Former UK health secretary Sajid Javid

Several of the ministers cited Johnson’s lack of judgment, standards, and inability to tell the truth.

A snap YouGov poll found 69% of Britons thought Johnson should step down as prime minister but for the time being the remainder of his top ministerial team offered their backing.

“I fully support the prime minister,” Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said. “I am sorry to see good colleagues resign, but we have a big job of work to do.”

Although Johnson won wider plaudits for his support of Ukraine, a lift in his personal poll ratings did not last. His Conservatives trail the opposition Labour Party and his own popularity ratings are at all-time lows.

Johnson’s combative approach towards the European Union has also weighed on the pound, exacerbating inflation which is forecast to surpass 11%.

“After all the sleaze, the scandals and the failure, it’s clear that this government is now collapsing,” Labour leader Keir Starmer said.

“After all the sleaze, the scandals and the failure, it’s clear that this government is now collapsing.”

Labour Leader Keir Starmer

What happens if Johnson steps down?

Were Johnson to go, the process to replace him could take a couple of months.

Johnson narrowly survived a confidence vote last month, giving him 12 months of immunity from another one. But some lawmakers in his Conservative Party have been trying to change the party rules to shorten that immunity period.

Other lawmakers had appealed to Johnson’s top team of cabinet ministers to move against him.

Johnson could decide he has lost the support of too many members of his party and the cabinet and resign. He has so far shown no signs of being willing to do this.

If Johnson continues to insist on staying, several more members of the cabinet could quit and call on him to go, almost certainly forcing him to resign. However, media reports suggest other senior members of the cabinet, including Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, and Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove are staying in place.

Some lawmakers have been trying to change the party rules so they can hold another vote of confidence sooner than is currently allowed. Elections for the membership of the so-called 1922 Committee, which sets the rules, are due to be held shortly.

Were Johnson to be ousted, a process would be held to find a new leader. Here is how that process, which is overseen by the 1922 Committee, is likely to work:

– Candidates putting themselves forward for the leadership must be nominated by two other Conservative lawmakers. There could be a wide field of candidates.

– Conservative lawmakers then hold several rounds of votes to whittle down the number of candidates. Each time they are asked to vote for their favored candidate in a secret ballot, and the person with the fewest votes is eliminated.

– This process is repeated until there are two candidates remaining. Votes previously have been held on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

– The final two candidates are then put to a postal ballot of the wider Conservative Party membership, with the winner named the new leader.

– The leader of the party with a majority in the House of Commons is the de facto prime minister. They do not have to call a snap election but have the power to do so.

The length of time the leadership contest takes can vary, depending on how many people put themselves forward. Theresa May became leader less than three weeks after predecessor David Cameron resigned in 2016 and all other contenders dropped out mid-race.

Johnson faced former health minister Jeremy Hunt in the run-off ballot of Conservative members to replace May in 2019, and took office two months after May announced her intention to resign.

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