So it has started. The joint resignation of Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid marks a cabinet coup against Boris Johnson, seeking to remove him without the need for a parliamentary revolt. ‘This will be a cabinet thing, not a party thing,’ one minister told me earlier: ‘Someone will have to resign, then others will be faced with a choice.’ That someone turned out to be Javid, who quit as Health Secretary this evening with Sunak following 20 minutes later. Johnson is in survival mode, telling Tory MPs that ‘cutting taxes now somewhat easier” now that debt-averse Sunak has gone. Within hours, Nadhim Zahawi – who has a more elastic view about borrowing limits – was named the new Chancellor.
Zahawi’s appointment came after an all-out campaign to find loyalists, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg who says voters chose Johnson as PM so Cabinet members cannot dethrone him. Michael Gove wants Johnson gone – but knifed him once before and feels he can’t do so again. George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, may be next to quit.
A Chancellor resigning is bad enough but quitting along with the Health Secretary – not co-ordinated, we’re told – makes this a double blow that Johnson will struggle to survive. He may make it through the week, perhaps even the summer, but from this moment I suspect he is mortally wounded. In his letter, Sunak said that he firmly believes ‘that the public are ready to hear the truth’ – suggesting they have been hearing something other than the truth to date from the Prime Minister. He also points to longstanding tension between them, saying he has supported Johnson publicly even though they differ privately. It’s an open secret that Sunak despairs at Johnson’s spending profligacy and thought this laughably irreconcilable with any hopes for low taxes.
So what will these two say now that they’re unconstrained by cabinet collective responsibility? They’ll be appalled – as the rest of the cabinet will be – about the way Therese Coffey and others were sent out to say that the PM didn’t know about Chris Pincher only to find out that that was a lie. The Pincher affair has made all Cabinet members think: ‘That could be me. I could easily be the next to sent to bat for the PM and take No. 10’s line, but I cannot do this because I suspect that No. 10 is incompetent or mendacious. In which case, why am I still serving them?’ I have had several conversations with ministers to this effect. But they pause because they have no idea who or what will come next, and whether this will mark an improvement.
Sunak’s letter alluded to what he sees as fundamental dishonesty in pushing ever-higher public spending while pretending to be a tax-cutting government. Sunak was indeed the one who insisted on tax rises, intended to impress on No. 10 that this is what happens when you increase spending. Sunak is understood to have opposed all of the Johnson big-ticket splurges, from HS2 to the care home subsidy scheme. But he sucked it up as Chancellor, thinking such concessions were the cost of power. He is understood to have been close to resignation several times in the past: I suspect now he wishes he had jumped earlier.
Don’t be surprised if Javid mentions steel tariffs as one of the reasons that he struggled to support Johnson’s government: as Business Secretary he was vehemently against protectionism and is understood to be furious that a Conservative government is about to break WTO rules by slapping tariffs on steel at the behest of a handful of red wall MPs. Sunak is no less angry. (Kate Andrews has written the definitive blog on this.) But I suspect he really went because he heard so many of his colleagues saying the same thing: ‘This can’t go on, someone needs to do something.’ They all needed someone. Now they have one.
So: what happens next? Will anyone else go? Priti Patel says that she won’t, and allies of Liz Truss say she’s staying put. But I’ve spoken to two other non-cabinet ministers today who say they are very close to doing so. We have seen some minor resignations this evening: Andrew Murrison has quit as a trade envoy, Saqib Bhatti and Johnathan Gillis as a PPS and Bim Afolami quit live on air as Tory vice-chair for youth.
So after so many failed attempts, are we finally witnessing the end of Boris Johnson? We’ll know a lot more in the next 24 hours.
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