Boris Johnson is clinging to power by a thread after the twin resignations of his chancellor and health secretary over the Chris Pincher scandal plunged him into his biggest crisis yet.
The disintegration of the cabinet – long seen as the event most likely to force the prime minister out of No 10 – dramatically cut the odds on his premiership ending imminently.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, walked out telling Mr Johnson the Conservative party is “bigger than any one individual” – while Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, protested that “standards are worth fighting for”.
Earlier on Tuesday, No 10 had admitted the prime minister knew a misconduct complaint had been upheld against Mr Pincher when he appointed him to the whips’ office, triggering an eruption of Tory anger.
The resignations came just moments after a grovelling apology by Mr Johnson for the “mistake” of promoting the minister – a move No 10 had spent five days defending.
Keir Starmer said it was “clear that this government is now collapsing” and lashed out at ministers who had been “complicit” as the prime minister “disgraced his office”.
The Labour leader called for a general election – something No 10 threatened Tory MPs with only weeks ago, to stop them moving against Mr Johnson – saying: “We need a fresh start for Britain. We need a change of government.”
Bim Afolami, a vice chair of the Tory party resigned dramatically on air, and David Frost, the former Brexit minister, also called on Mr Johnson to go.
But other cabinet ministers rallied around to stem the bleeding, including Liz Truss, Dominic Raab, Michael Gove, Nadhim Zahawi and Kwasi Kwarteng.
Jacob Rees-Mogg brushed off talk that the end was near, arguing the prime minister had only made “a minor mistake” and saying: “Losing chancellors is something that happens.”
Mr Johnson also moved swiftly to make clear he will not be quitting with an emergency reshuffle to fill the vacant posts.
Mr Zahawi was made the new chancellor, a promotion from education secretary, after winning a tussle with Ms Truss, while Stephen Barclay was moved from the Cabinet Office to health.
The dual resignations came after the tactic of filming cabinet meetings backfired when its members were captured with worried, gloomy faces – prompting speculation that a revolt was near.
Senior Tories had urged Mr Johnson’s top team to pull the plug on his premiership, as party rules prevent – for now – a second no-confidence vote for one year.
“Backbenchers have done all they can. It is up to the cabinet to decide if they will put up, or if they will continue to shut up,” the former health minister Steve Brine told The Independent.
Nick Gibb, the respected former schools minister, likened the situation to the crisis in the US where “you worry whether democracy is safe” – as he also urged the cabinet to act.
“We have to make sure that doesn’t happen in this country. We have to get rid of the rot in our political system,” he told BBC Radio 4.
Tim Loughton, another former anti-Johnson minister, said: “At last, we’ve got two very senior cabinet ministers who have absolutely done the decent thing. And I hope this will now set the course that we do need, a change of leader at the top.”
Mr Javid and Mr Sunak’s resignations were announced within moments of each other, but sources close to the pair denied they were discussed in advance or were coordinated.
Earlier, in a devastating intervention, a former head of the Foreign Office revealed Mr Johnson was briefed personally about the complaint against Mr Pincher, in 2019.
Simon McDonald said he was speaking out because the account given by Downing Street – which first claimed the prime minister was unaware of any allegations – was “not true”.
In a letter to the parliamentary standards commissioner, the retired mandarin said the 2019 allegations “were similar to those made about his behaviour at the Carlton Club” – where Mr Pincher had been accused of groping two men.
“Mr Pincher deceived me and others in 2019. He cannot be allowed to use the confidentiality of the process three years ago to pursue his predatory behaviour in other contexts,” he wrote.
The prime minister’s spokesperson had continued to insist the information about Mr Pincher’s behaviour was no reason to bar him from the job as deputy chief whip, with responsibility for Tory MP’s welfare.
In his resignation letter, Mr Sunak also cast doubt on the prime minister’s honesty about the true state of the economy, writing that their approaches are “fundamentally too different” and that “people know that if something is too good to be true then it’s not true”.
Four unpaid parliamentary aides also quit, as did Andrew Murrison as the government’s trade envoy to Morocco, telling Mr Johnson: “Your position has become unrecoverable. I strongly urge you to resign.”
The respected Institute for Government hit out at dishonesty in No 10, calling on cabinet secretary Simon Case to step in and saying: “The prime minister’s official spokesman cannot double as a liar.”
Nicola Sturgeon predicted the prime minister is now doomed, tweeting: “Feels like end might be nigh for Johnson – not a moment too soon.”
Roger Gale, a Tory critic of Mr Johnson, predicted he would not go willingly, saying: “He will try to hang on but I don’t think that he can.”
Mr Johnson must now face a two-hour grilling by a Commons committee on Wednesday, when the topics on the agenda include “integrity in politics and the rule of law”.
In his response to Mr Sunak, the prime minister praised his “outstanding service” and made no mention of the reason for the chancellor quitting.
Likewise, he told Mr Javid he “will be greatly missed”, but omitted any reference to his former health secretary’s attack on his “integrity”.
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