Alun Cairns quits as UK cabinet minister on furore over rape trial collapse
There are claims he approved the selection of a former aide as a Tory candidate despite being accused by a judge of sabotaging a rape trial
London — Things keep going wrong for Boris Johnson as he seeks to win a Conservative majority in the UK’s December 12 general election.
The prime minister’s bid was rocked by a cabinet resignation on Wednesday, just minutes before he launched the campaign. Welsh secretary Alun Cairns quit after reports he knew about a former aide’s role in the collapse of a rape trial.
The resignation — the first by a cabinet minister during an election campaign for at least 100 years — is a blow for the Tories at the start of one of the most unpredictable contests in recent history. While they have a double-digit lead over the main opposition Labour Party in several recent polls, the negatives are already piling up.
Johnson gave a speech outside his Downing Street office as he sought to regain the initiative with an appeal to voters to give him a “sensible majority” so he can push his Brexit deal through parliament. The delay in the UK’s departure from the EU has had “disastrous” effects on the country, he said.
“If I come back here with a working majority in parliament, then I will get parliament working again for you,” Johnson said. “And we will make this country the greatest place to live, to raise a family, to start a business, to send your kids to school.”
The speech followed Cairns’s resignation over allegations he approved the selection of a former aide as a Tory candidate even though he’d been accused by a judge of sabotaging a rape trial. Cairns said in a letter to Johnson that he is “confident I will be cleared of any breach or wrongdoing”.
Conservative Party chair James Cleverly earlier gave a series of TV and radio interviews in which he tried to contain the fallout from comments by leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was forced to apologise for suggesting the 72 people killed in the 2017 Grenfell tower-block fire hadn’t shown “common sense”.
Those remarks were then compounded by fellow Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen, who suggested Rees-Mogg would have survived the fire because he is more “clever” than the victims. Bridgen also apologised, but opponents said the pair’s comments showed the party is out of touch with ordinary people.
“What Rees-Mogg and Bridgen said goes to the poisonous heart of the Tories’ attitude towards people in our communities,” Labour’s campaign co-ordinator, Andrew Gwynne, said in a statement.
In another setback for the Conservatives, the country’s most senior public servant blocked the Treasury from publishing costings for the opposition Labour Party’s policies. According to a Treasury official, the announcement had been ready to go on Tuesday, but after complaints from Labour, cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill refused to let it proceed.
Also on Tuesday, former chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond said he would be quitting parliament after his expulsion from the Tory party. He didn’t leave quietly, saying in a letter to constituents that he was “saddened” by the situation after 45 years of party membership.
“The Conservative Party that I have served has always had room for a wide range of opinions and has been tolerant of measured dissent,” Hammond wrote. “Many Parliamentary colleagues have defied the party whip on occasions without any action being taken against them,” he added in a swipe at Johnson, who himself twice voted against the Brexit deal secured by his predecessor, Theresa May.
Johnson will hold a rally on Wednesday evening in the West Midlands, where he will reiterate his core pledges to deliver Brexit and move on to addressing policing, health care and education. But there’s a danger for the prime minister that the drip of negative stories may swamp that message.