Yet again, Prime Minister Boris Johnson finds himself in trouble. After a fresh scandal—involving predatory sexual misbehaviour and a Tory MP recently promoted to the role of Deputy Chief Whip by Johnson himself—two high-profile ministers resigned from the government. On the evening of July 5th, both Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid abandoned the prime minister and issued public resignation letters. Intent on managing the crisis, the two ministers were swiftly replaced by Nadim Zahawi and Steve Barclay respectively.
The fresh scandal concerns the alleged sexual misconduct of Chris Pincher, a Tory MP and Deputy Chief Whip for the government, until he was forced out of this role on June 30th. Pincher has been accused of drunkenly groping two men at the private Carlton Club on the evening of June 29th. This kind of impropriety is not as unusual as it should be within Whitehall. The problem for Johnson is that not only did he personally appoint Pincher as Deputy Chief Whip back in February, but he did so despite being made aware of formal complaints against the MP’s ‘inappropriate behaviour’ as long ago as 2019.
This raises serious questions about the prime minister’s judgement, but that is not the main reason why two of the government’s most senior ministers saw it fit to resign. In their resignation letters, Sunak and Javid made it clear that their decisions were a matter of conscience. On Sunday and Monday, ministers—including Sunak and Javid—were sent out to argue on behalf of the government that the prime minister had no knowledge of specific allegations when he chose to appoint Pincher. Then, later on Monday, July 4th, Downing Street made a statement clarifying that the prime minister had only been aware of “reports and speculation over the years.” On Tuesday 5th, the government line changed yet again. Johnson admitted that he had been notified back in 2019 “of a specific allegation against Pincher that was resolved.” He then added that, in hindsight, appointing Pincher earlier this year “was the wrong thing to do.” Sunak and Javid resigned in a matter of minutes after this apparent U-turn.
The prime minister appears to be claiming that, far from meaning to be dishonest, he had simply forgotten. This is rather inconsistent with the rumours, not categorically denied by Downing Street, that Johnson made light of Pincher’s alleged sexual habits in the past by describing him as “handsy.” He is further rumoured to have joked about the disgraced MP’s track record of impropriety, giving him the epithet “Pincher by name, pincher by nature.” Johnson has not formally denied making either of these two comments, despite being relentlessly grilled on the matter by Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs.
This morning, Sajid Javid made a statement in the House of Commons. “It’s not fair on ministerial colleagues to go out every morning defending lines that don’t stand up and don’t hold up,” asserted Javid, referring to the dishonesty over ‘Partygate’ as well as to the more recent ‘Pinchergate’ developments. The former health secretary also called on remaining members of the Cabinet to resign themselves.
Not long after Javid’s statement, five government ministers followed this advice and announced their own resignations in a shared letter. The ministers in question were Kemi Badenoch, Neil O’Brien, Alex Burghart, Lee Rowley, and Julia Lopez.
Asked if there are any circumstances under which he would be forced to resign, Johnson replied: “The job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances, when he’s been handed a colossal mandate, is to keep going and that’s what I’m going to do.”