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Britain’s Boris Johnson defiantly vowed on Wednesday to fight on against growing calls for him to resign as prime minister, but his pledge to keep going was met with scornful laughter at a parliamentary appearance.
Wounded by the resignations of a stream of senior colleagues and junior ministers who said he was unfit to govern, Johnson sought to come out fighting at parliament’s weekly prime minister’s questions session.
“The job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances, is to keep going.” Johnson said. “And that’s what I’m going to do.”
Earlier, he tried to reassert his authority by quickly appointing Nadhim Zahawi, a rising star in the Conservative Party widely credited for the successful rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, as chancellor of the exchequer.
But there was a brutal response to Johnson’s performance.
Underlining the tenuous position he is in, some colleagues in his cabinet team of top ministers struggled to contain their laughter as the opposition Labour leader poked fun at his cabinet for being in the “charge of the lightweight brigade”.
Three members of Johnson’s own party asked whether he would resign.
To one, he replied: “There is a very simple reason why they want me out and that is they know otherwise we are going to get on and deliver our mandate and win another general election.
“Clearly, if there were circumstances in which I felt it was impossible for the government to go on and discharge the mandate that we’ve been given, or if I felt, for instance, that we were being frustrated in our desire to support the Ukrainian people ... then I would,” Johnson said.
Overall, it was a muted performance for a prime minister who has seen his political fortunes tumble from a landslide election victory in 2019 to now, when the resignation of his finance and health ministers opened the floodgates for more junior ministers to quit.
Shortly afterwards, his former health minister, Sajid Javid, detailed the scandals, missteps and gaffes that have marked Johnson’s tenure so far.
“Treading the tightrope between loyalty and integrity has become impossible in recent months,” Javid told silent MPs, with Johnson listening stony faced.
The prime minister is later due to appear before the chairs of select committees for a scheduled two-hour grilling later on Wednesday.
“I suspect we will have to drag him kicking and screaming from Downing Street,” one Conservative MP told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But if we have to do it that way then we will.”
A former journalist and London mayor who became the face of Britain’s departure from the EU, his landslide 2019 election win soon gave way to a combative and often chaotic approach to governing.
His leadership has been mired in scandals and missteps in the past few months. The police fined him for contravening Covid-19 lockdown laws, and a damning report was published about the behaviour of officials at his Downing Street office who breached their own lockdown rules.
There have also been policy U-turns, an ill-fated defence of an MP who broke lobbying rules and criticism that he has not done enough to tackle a cost-of-living crisis. Many Britons struggle to cope with rising fuel and food prices.
The latest bout of drama at the heart of British power comes as the economy deteriorates rapidly. Some economists say the country could tip into recession.
The latest scandal saw Johnson apologising for appointing an MP to a role involved in party welfare and discipline, even after being briefed that the politician had been the subject of complaints about sexual misconduct.
Downing Street’s narrative changed several times about what the prime minister knew of the past behaviour of the politician, who was forced to resign, and when he knew it. His spokesperson blamed a lapse in Johnson’s memory.
That prompted Rishi Sunak to quit as chancellor of the exchequer, the finance minister, and Javid to resign as health secretary, while others left their junior ministerial or envoy roles.
“It is clear to me that this situation will not change under your leadership — and you have therefore lost my confidence too,” Javid said in his resignation letter.
Several of the ministers cited Johnson’s lack of judgment, standards, and inability to tell the truth.
A snap YouGov poll found 69% of Britons thought Johnson should step down as prime minister but for the time being the remainder of his top ministerial team offered their backing.
A month ago, Johnson survived a confidence vote of Conservative MPs, and party rules mean he cannot face another such challenge for a year.
However, some MPs are seeking to change those rules, while he is also under investigation by a parliamentary committee over whether he lied to parliament about Covid-19 lockdown breaches.
Those changes could come as soon as late Wednesday at a meeting of the 1922 Committee that sets the rules for leadership confidence votes.
Were Johnson to go, the process to replace him could take a couple of months.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.