Boris Johnson’s position as prime minister of the United Kingdom was teetering on the edge on Wednesday, after more than 30 members of his government resigned in protest against a series of ethics scandals.
On Tuesday, Johnson’s finance minister Rishi Sunak and health minister Sajid Javid resigned within minutes of each other. “The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously,” Sunak said in his resignation letter. Their resignations were followed over the next 24 hours by an unprecedented 32 other members of the government.
The immediate trigger was a sexual abuse scandal. Chris Pincher, a senior member of Johnson’s government, was forced to resign on July 1 after allegations he had groped two men on a drunken night at a private members’ club. His resignation was followed by reports in the press of multiple other past sexual harassment allegations against him. Johnson’s spokesperson initially said the prime minister had not been aware of allegations made about Pincher at the time he had been appointed to government in 2019. But Johnson was forced to backtrack after it emerged he had been briefed about a specific allegation ahead of that appointment. There were reports that Johnson had also referred to the lawmaker as “Pincher by name, pincher by nature.”
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It was only the latest in a series of escalating domestic scandals involving Johnson. In late 2021, and in early 2022, it emerged that the beleaguered prime minister and his colleagues had attended multiple parties at his official residence, 10 Downing Street, at a time when the rest of the country was under strict COVID-19 lockdowns. Johnson was found to have broken the law—a first for a sitting prime minister—and fined by police for attending one of the parties. He later apologized to the Queen for another gathering that was held on the eve of her husband’s funeral.
Against many people’s expectations, Johnson survived the “partygate” scandal and eagerly stepped into a more statesmanlike role after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24. He popped up unannounced twice in Kyiv, and committed more than $2 billion of military aid to Ukraine, more money than any country except the United States.
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But back home, support for him and his party continued to ebb, with rising inflation and a constant drumbeat of “Tory sleaze.” One Conservative lawmaker was forced to resign after admitting watching pornography in parliament. Another was found guilty of sexually abusing a teenage boy. In local elections held to replace them, opposition candidates won by large margins, leading increasing numbers of Johnson’s colleagues to ask whether he was leading their party to defeat at the next election. He narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in June—with more than 40% of his own lawmakers voting against him.
Under party rules, Johnson’s victory in that vote should have kept him safe in the post for 12 months. But as the resignations from Johnson’s government kept coming in on Wednesday, there were reports that there were not enough willing lawmakers to fill vacant government positions—as good a sign as any that he is running on borrowed time.
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