Boris Johnson is the condemned man who refuses to die. For seven months, hardly without a week’s intermission, he has blustered his way through a series of scandals and pratfalls that would have toppled most titans of post-war British politics. To the intense irritation of his foes and rivals, he refused to accept the political death sentence.

By tea time on Tuesday, the almost simultaneous resignation of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, however, looked like the end at last for the U.K.’s mercurial prime minister. A slew of junior ministers followed in their wake. At furious speed, No. 10 cobbled together untested replacements. The sound of barrels being scraped resounded around Westminster.

This time, his premiership seems fatally wounded. How long the demise takes will determine the possible outcome of the U.K.’s next election and the future of his party.

Sunak and Johnson were supposed to make a joint statement on the economy next week. But the chancellor was frustrated by the air of permanent crisis hanging over government and contradictory policy-making: his resignation letter declared he had been prepared to compromise and accept collective responsibility for decisions he didn’t agree with, but his differences with the prime minister were now too great to continue in office. In other words, the prime minister wants to buy off voters’ enraged by tax rises and inflation while the chancellor has nightmares about the mounting deficit. Sunak’s fiscal orthodoxy could no longer be reconciled with Johnson’s free-spending ways.

Another sucker punch came from Javid, the health secretary, who told Johnson in his farewell missive that “you have lost my confidence too” and boldly questioned the prime minister’s integrity. Javid has resigned from this government before, after serving as a short-lived chancellor. This time he declared “that the public are ready to hear the truth.” In which case, he implied, they haven’t been hearing it from No. 10.

Yet Johnson’s political assassination has been as slow and incompetent as that of Rasputin: Disgruntled aristocrats tried arsenic, bullets from a revolver and drowning in the frozen river Neva before they finally dispatched “the mad monk” who was the favorite of the czar. Johnson, too, somehow manages to keep his head up above water.


Police investigations and civil service inquiries into the “partygate” scandal at No. 10 tripped over each other and failed to finish the prime minister off earlier this year, even though he was fined for breaking his own lockdown rules.

Even a recent parliamentary revolt didn’t topple him – although as many as 148 Conservative MPs declared they had no confidence in his helmsmanship. Had the rebels waited for the results of two catastrophic by-election defeats for the government a fortnight later, Johnson would most likely have been toast.

Remembering the Cabinet revolt that heralded the downfall of Margaret Thatcher – Britain’s toughest, most successful prime minister – Tory dissidents have recently been begging senior ministers in public and private to send Johnson packing. The Cabinet has the ultimate responsibility to call time on a leader who can’t lead. But the old adage that “he who wields the knife never wears the crown” – and the knowledge that many lightweight loyalists around Johnson are unlikely to see high office under another Tory prime minister – ensured that ranks remained unbroken. Until now.

Even so, it will be remembered among the rank and file that both departing ministers have American green cards in their pockets, which allow them to reside and work in the U.S. Sunak, a highly employable former Goldman Sachs executive with A-list global business contacts, unwisely suggested in his resignation letter that the Treasury might be his last ministerial post.

This challenge may have been led by well-heeled plutocrats, but how much dissembling can Johnson’s MPs, party and the country at large bear? The latest grubby sex scandal involving a whip, Chris Pincher, whose job was to exert party discipline and was personally promoted by the prime minister, has humiliated Cabinet colleagues who were expected to defend the prime minister’s falsehoods.

Johnson sent out minister after minister to back No. 10’s denial that he knew of Pincher’s predatory sexual conduct before giving him the job. On Sunday, a Cabinet ally protested, “I am not aware that he was made aware of specific claims.” By Monday, according to another minister Johnson was unaware of “any serious specific allegation.” Yet it was soon revealed that Johnson had once joked “Pincher by name, pincher by nature” about his disgraced ally.

It looks awful to voters that even friends of the prime minister are now writing his political obituaries. I was at a gathering of people sympathetic to Johnson this week and it struck me how many remembered his ability from his Oxford days onward to acquire a large body of loyalists and fellow travelers while supported by a small tight core of intimates. That talent sustained him through many storms.

Today, the opportunistic loyalists are fading away or writing “Dear Boris” letters of rueful resignation. The result is a barrel-scraped Cabinet and a prime minister clinging by his fingertips. Neither a good look for the government nor a sound bet for Britain’s Conservatives.

— Bloomberg News

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