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“It was a mistake and I apologise.” In a clip filmed for the 6pm news, an unusually deflated Prime Minister finally said sorry over his handling of the Chris Pincher scandal that has brought his government to crisis point.
Boris Johnson, with his hair neatly clipped and a sombre tone of voice, said he had made a big mistake with the appointment of his deputy chief whip and “if I had my time again I would think back on it” and do things differently.
It was the moment the PM and his allies hoped would douse the embers of a ministerial rebellion and screw the lid tightly down on five days of chaos that have fanned the flames of discontent within the party.
Instead, just two minutes after broadcasters began playing his remarks out to the country, No 10 was stunned by the shock resignation of Sajid Javid, who said he could no longer “in good conscience” remain in post.
In a searing letter sent to Mr Johnson, the Health Secretary said he did not believe the Government was “competent in acting in the national interest” and that “it is clear to me that this situation will not change under your leadership”.
Just nine minutes later, a second bombshell landed on Downing Street as Rishi Sunak also quit, insisting he couldn’t stay on even though Britain is going through the worst cost of living crisis in decades.
“The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously. I recognise this may be my last ministerial job, but I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning,” he said in a parting shot.
Sources close to both men were adamant that they had not coordinated their resignations and that the events of the last few days, and the ever-shifting No 10 line on the allegations against Mr Pincher, had made up their minds.
The vice-chairman of the Conservative Party then resigned live on air as the night threatened to descend into further chaos and nail-biting for the Prime Minister.
Bim Afolami said he had come to the decision after attending the funeral of a local councillor in his constituency and being struck by the eulogies praising his “deep integrity”.
He told TalkTV that Mr Johnson did not enjoy “the support of the party or indeed the country anymore and I think for that reason he should step down”.
What followed was a flurry of Cabinet colleagues - including Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Home Secretary Priti Patel, and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace - insisting that they remained loyal to Mr Johnson and were going nowhere, though most made their feelings known via anonymous allies rather than in person.
“The Prime Minister won a mandate from the British people and that is more powerful than Cabinet ministers resigning,” declared Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister for Brexit opportunities.
Alister Jack, Scottish Secretary, added: “I fully support the Prime Minister. I am sorry to see good colleagues resign, but we have a big job of work to do, and that’s what we’re getting on with.”
A punch-drunk Prime Minister then attempted to wrest the initiative back, telling a large gathering of mutinous Tory MPs that the departure of two of his most senior ministers would make tax cuts “easier to deliver”.
He has since promoted top leadership contender Nadhim Zahawi to Chancellor in a bid to see off a further challenge to his authority.
Michelle Donelan, the Universities Minister, was bumped up to replace him as Education Secretary in a late night announcement.
Meanwhile ultra-loyalist Steve Barclay, who was Mr Johnson’s chief of staff, took up the post of Health Secretary.
Country would be ‘best served by new leadership’
But he faced a further blow as Lord Frost, his former Brexit negotiator, said the pair had been right to resign and the country would be “best served by new leadership”.
“There is no chance of the Prime Minister either putting in place the necessary change of approach to running a government or establishing a new policy direction,” he added.
Mr Johnson was left teetering on the brink of being booted out of Downing Street after yet another calamitous day that began with his deputy, Dominic Raab, being hung out to dry by No 10 in both the media and the Commons.
The Justice Secretary had been sent out on to the airwaves to defend the Government over its handling of the Pincher scandal, but the lines he was given quickly disintegrated and were then contradicted by Downing Street.
He started the day by telling BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that the Prime Minister had not been “directly briefed” about a complaint made against Mr Pincher while he was a minister at the Foreign Office in 2019.
But just moments before he began speaking a public letter from Lord McDonald, the former head of the diplomatic service, had dropped revealing that was not the case and accusing No 10 of misleading the public.
Later on Tuesday morning, Mr Raab was up in Parliament for justice questions where he faced a cross-party grilling from furious Tory and Labour MPs over what and when the PM knew about the claims against Mr Pincher.
In the end the only defence left to the snookered Justice Secretary was to claim he had not made his initial remarks which, just hours earlier, millions of breakfasting Britons had heard him announce on the radio.
As such he became just the latest ministerial victim, albeit the most senior, of a constantly shifting line from Downing Street’s press team over five days of chaos and confusion.
But his discomfort was at least short-lived as minutes later Michael Ellis, Paymaster General and the Government’s dedicated Commons firefighter, arrived at the dispatch box to deliver a seventh new version of events on behalf of No 10.
He appeared in order to complete another volte-face with the new defence that the Prime Minister had in fact been told about the historic groping allegations, but “did not immediately recall” them.
Calls for Cabinet to oust PM
Flanked by more than half a dozen Tory whips but no ministers, and with a sea of green leather behind him on the deserted back benches, he insisted the incorrect line as previously given was “not a question of honesty”.
“If the circumstances were not firmly crystallised in any individual’s mind at the time they were being given that information, they can easily not be recollected,” he told incredulous MPs.
“It doesn’t necessarily immediately impugn dishonesty if someone doesn’t recall something years after the event.”
Mr Ellis then probably wished the smattering of Conservative backbenchers who turned up had stayed at home as he faced a roasting from his own side and calls for the Cabinet to oust Mr Johnson.
John Penrose, who was the PM’s anti-corruption tsar until he quit over the partygate scandal last month, said that “No 10 have not been honest” in recent days and ministers should say “enough is enough”.
William Wragg, vice-chair of the 1922 committee, added frontbenchers must “ask themselves if they can any longer tolerate being part of a government which is widely regarded as having lost its sense of direction”.
Most worrying of all for No 10 was that one of the harshest inquisitors was Dr Caroline Johnson, a hitherto loyal backbencher who publicly backed the PM when he faced a confidence vote just a month ago.
Towards the end of his mauling, Mr Ellis hit back at one Labour MP by insisting “this Prime Minister will go on to fight the next general election”, which was met with scornful laughter from two of his own colleagues.
Another exchange with the opposition got particularly heated when he accused Charlotte Nicholls, Warrington North MP, of trying to make political capital out of the scandal, to which she mouthed back: “You’re a piece of s---.”
At the same time there was a more convivial debate going on across Parliament where Lord True, a minister in the Cabinet office, was reading out the same statement to uproarious laughter from peers.
As he ploughed through the Government’s defence of its actions even Baroness Evans, the long-serving Conservative leader of the House of Lords, was struggling to stifle giggles.
Across the road in Downing Street the PM’s chief spinner had just begun his daily press briefing half an hour late to an opening question of: “Are you planning on telling us the truth today?”
All the while senior Tory MP Mark Harper, a former chief whip, was touring the broadcast studios calling for a full-blown Cabinet rebellion to oust the Prime Minister.
Things got so bad that Mr Johnson himself made a very rare visit to the Commons tea room on Tuesday afternoon to try and raise morale amongst his rebellious troops. In the evening he hosted drinks at No 10 for loyalist MPs.
Five days of chaos after Pincher resignation
The Prime Minister has now endured five straight days of chaos since Mr Pincher quit as deputy chief whip on Thursday night over claims he drunkenly groped two men at the Carlton Club.
Since then a flurry of further allegations against him of drunkenness, inappropriate behaviour and groping have emerged, which he denies.
The most damaging new revelation for No 10 was that a group of civil servants at the Foreign Office had raised a complaint with the department’s head mandarin over Mr Pincher’s behaviour.
Mr Ellis told the Commons that the PM had indeed been “made aware of this” at the time and was told the “necessary action” had been taken, meaning “no issue therefore arose about [him] remaining as a minister”.
A Cabinet Office investigation “established that while the minister meant no harm, what had occurred caused a high level of discomfort”, he said. Mr Pincher apologised and promised not to repeat the behaviour, according to Lord McDonald.
No 10 acknowledged at a press briefing on Monday that the Prime Minister has been aware of “media reports” including some claims, but stuck to the line that he didn’t know of “any specific allegations” that were formal.
Yet despite news of the historic complaint surfacing later that evening, as well as the fact that the PM had known about it, Mr Raab was sent out to defend the Government on Tuesday morning having apparently not been told so.
Under pressure to explain what happened, Mr Ellis told MPs that Mr Johnson “did not immediately recall the conversation in late 2019 about this incident” and that “as soon as he was reminded, the No 10 press office corrected their public lines”.
The PM was further rocked by the resignations of four low-ranking members of the government including Jonathan Gullis, who was considered an ultra-loyalist.
But Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns used a Tuesday night speech to the Commons to announce that he would be standing by Mr Johnson.
Simon Clarke, the chief secretary to the Treasury, was due to represent the Government on the airwaves on Wednesday morning but is said to have pulled out surely before his boss Mr Sunak announced his resignation.
Mr Clarke insisted he will “continue to serve the Prime Minister” and is going nowhere. As dusk settled on another chaotic day of Mr Johnson’s premiership, aides in No 10 were praying that more ministers will follow his lead.