On Thursday, Boris Johnson returned from the NATO summit in Madrid after spending several days with world leaders. At the previous G7 in Bavaria, speaking loud enough for the camera to pick up, he joked, “Can we get naked? in a supposed response to an old cliché of Vladimir Putin topless.
At NATO, he had at least tried to think long-term, publicly promising to raise defense spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2030. Yet his term as prime minister ended a week later. – at the time, the only military comment he would make was to compare himself to a Japanese soldier who had refused to surrender for 29 years after World War II. The joke was remarkably fair.
The remarkable disintegration of his premiership began the moment he left NATO photocalls behind. Chris Pincher resigned as deputy chief whip the evening of Johnson’s return, after allegations that Pincher groped two men at the Carlton Club in Westminster. The story was bad enough, but what followed was a disastrous series of evasions, half-truths – and even the feeling that Johnson thought it was all a joke.
Last Friday, Downing Street first said the Prime Minister was unaware of any allegations against Pincher when he promoted him in February, then hours later that he was unaware of no “specific” allegation.
Yet even that proved to be inaccurate as new complaints about Pincher emerged. Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings, who had long awaited the chance to deliver the final blow, suggested that Johnson knew this all along and had called his colleague “Pincher by name, by nature”.
More damning evidence was to follow. On Tuesday morning, a former senior Foreign Office official, Simon McDonald, said there had been a similar incident involving Pincher when he was a junior Foreign Office minister in 2019, and that Johnson had been ” informed in person of the initiation and outcome of the investigation”.
Jason Groves, the political editor of the pro-Tory Daily Mail, began today’s briefing for lobby reporters by asking the Prime Minister’s spokesman: “Will you tell the truth?” – prompting a somewhat embarrassed official to reply that they provided “the information I had at every meeting”.
Johnson visited the tearooms in an attempt to save the day. But as Tory MP Gary Sambrook revealed to Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Johnson sought to blame everyone but the author.
According to Sambrook, Johnson said, “There were seven MPs at the Carlton Club last week, and one of them should have tried to step in to stop Chris drinking so much.”
Sambrook was cheered as he called on him to step down, but by then it was already clear that Johnson’s premiership was at an endgame – even though Johnson was the last to see it.
The night before, Sajid Javid and then Rishi Sunak had resigned, issuing similar statements nine minutes apart that focused squarely on the Johnson character issue.
“The British people rightly expect the integrity of their government,” Javid wrote in a statement released at 6:02 p.m.
Sunak wrote, “The public expects government to be run properly, competently and earnestly.” The statements appeared coordinated even though both sides denied it.
The resignations of mostly junior ministers continued at an extraordinary pace on Wednesday, the first coming as new chancellor Nadhim Zahawi made a morning media tour, and continued to Welsh secretary Simon Hart at 10.33pm. By midnight, the final number of starts was over 40.
It had been an easy day for Keir Starmer. At Prime Minister’s Questions, the Labor leader read the account of one victim of Pincher – “he slowly lowered his hand in front of my groin” – in the deliberate style of a prosecutor. Then he asked Johnson why the former whip was promoted in the first place.
From teatime, ministers began to converge on Downing Street, mostly to demand Johnson’s head, and a handful to encourage him to stay. The Prime Minister saw them individually. Even Priti Patel, the normally staunch home secretary, said she thought he couldn’t go on.
Johnson, after taking the temperature of his more senior colleagues, was expected to conclude that the game was over, as Margaret Thatcher had done a generation before. There was even an early evening phone call scheduled with the Queen. But, remarkably, Johnson concluded for a while that he could keep fighting.
In a final show of frustration and relenting in his waning power, he sacked Michael Gove from the cabinet while Gove’s children and ex-wife Sarah Vine watched Love Island. According to Vine, a Daily Mail columnist, Gove told her: “The Prime Minister phoned me a few minutes ago and said it was time for me to take a step back. I said respectfully, “Prime Minister, if anyone has to back down, it’s you.”
Downing Street said Gove had to leave because ‘you can’t have a snake that’s not with you on one of the big points’. That night, The Sun was told Tory rebels would have to “dip their hands in blood” if they wanted to oust a prime minister who won the December 2019 election.
One night’s sleep and the fightback was over, though some couldn’t wait. Michelle Donelan resigned as education secretary shortly before 9 a.m. Thursday after around 36 hours in the job. She told Johnson it was the only way to “force your hand”. If she had waited until a math lesson, she might have changed her mind.
As more and more resignation letters landed on the Downing Street doormat, officials stopped taking calls from reporters on Thursday morning, prompting the immediate suspicion that it was finally over.
Johnson apparently got up at 6 a.m. to write a resignation speech, in which he would blame “herd instinct” for his departure rather than any particular misjudgment – on Pincher, the holidays or propriety.
It fell to the BBC’s new political editor, Chris Mason, to tell the nation, taking a phone call from Downing Street live on Radio 4 shortly after 9am.
Returning to the microphone, with a guest kindly dismissed, a cool Freemason said simply, “The Prime Minister has agreed to step down.