Why Have So Many Tory MPs Resigned From Boris Johnson's Government?

Here's a look back at the last week to see what might have put the prime minister in a precarious position.
Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid quit Boris Johnson's cabinet yesterday
Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid quit Boris Johnson's cabinet yesterday
Getty

With the resignation of 12 Tory MPs and counting, Boris Johnson’s time in No.10 is looking more precarious by the minute.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid walked shortly after 6pm last night, triggering an exodus of Tory MPs over just a few hours.

But just what was the final straw for these Conservatives?

The deputy chief whip for the Conservatives quit last week, after drunkenly groping two men on Thursday. This subsequently raised questions about just how much the prime minister knew about Pincher’s previous misconduct when he appointed him to cabinet earlier this year.

Things really took a turn for the worst on Tuesday morning when deputy prime minister Dominic Raab was providing one version of events on his morning media rounds, just as a former top civil servant tweeted out another.

And this wasn’t just a nightmare in terms of optics.

So, what happened with Chris Pincher?

Last Thursday, Pincher handed in his resignation, admitting he “drank far too much” and “embarrassed myself and other people”. It later emerged he had groped two men at a Conservative Party members’ club in London the night before.

Initially, Downing Street stood by him, but did eventually withdraw the whip – meaning he was no longer standing as a Tory MP but as an independent – on Friday.

For context, Pincher had already resigned from government as a junior whip back in 2017, over other sexual misconduct claims. Being in the whips office means you are responsible for the behaviour of the rest of the parliamentary party.

There was then an investigation into his behaviour, but Pincher was supposedly cleared of breaching the code of conduct.

Pincher was subsequently appointed to government again in 2019, this time to Foreign Office. No.10 allegedly received a formal complaint about his conduct around this time, but the following probe found he “meant no harm”.

Johnson then appointed to deputy chief whip in February of this year, although concerns were allegedly raised at this time, too.

The government’s changing lines

This is where it gets particularly complicated.

On Thursday – when Pincher resigned from government – Downing Street said there would be no further action from the party, and that he could keep the whip.

Welsh secretary Simon Hart went on live TV and seemed to step slightly away from the party line, saying he knows “what he would like to see happen” when it came to withdrawing the whip from Pincher. However, he acknowledged that the decision went down to Tory chief whip, Chris Heaton-Harris.

On Friday, the government withdrew the whip from Pincher. The prime minister’s spokesperson also claimed Johnson was “not aware of any allegations” against his former deputy chief whip. This was quickly changed to “specific allegations”.

On Sunday, work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey repeated this line, claiming Johnson was “not aware of specific claims” about Pincher before appointing him to government.

On Monday, junior minister Will Quince said Johnson was not aware of any “serious, specific allegations” against Pincher.

The Sunday Times newspaper then claimed an MP had raised a specific incident with No.10 only in February of this year.

A No.10 spokesperson then admitted Johnson was aware of “media reports” and “some allegations that were either resolved or did not progress to a formal complaint”. They claimed the PM decided it wouldn’t be right to block Pincher’s appointment “in the absence of any formal complaint”.

On Monday night, the BBC reported that Johnson – and his deputy Dominic Raab – were told about a formal complaint against Pincher, which triggered a disciplinary process against him back in 2018.

On Tuesday, the former top civil servant Simon McDonald disputed No.10′s account about what Johnson knew, claiming he had been “briefed in person” about complaints in the summer of 2019 and that “Pincher was not exonerated” in the process.

Minutes later, deputy prime minister Dominic Raab was on his media rounds, trying to defend No.10 against McDonald’s new claims. Again, he dismissed any claims Johnson knew about specific allegations against Pincher. Raab instead suggested there was no reason the prime minister would have been told the details about Pincher back in 2019.

This lack of transparency from the top of government with even its own ministers evidently did not go down well.

Tensions between ministers became pretty clear during Tuesday morning’s cabinet meeting, as Johnson’s top team were seen looking pretty downcast amid the scandal.

Then, unbelievably, another development emerged.

No.10 revealed on Tuesday, around lunchtime, that Johnson had forgotten he was ever told about the formal complaint against Pincher back in 2019.

This came just one day after Downing Street denied a formal complaint had ever been filed against the former deputy chief whip, and hours after Raab had defended Johnson.

It also countered all of the media appearances which ministers had undertaken over the last week, defending No.10 over Pincher.

Why does that matter?

There were already reports circulating over the weekend that senior ministers were shirking the media spotlight as they don’t want to defend various crises live on air, even before No.10 really U-turned on Pincher on Tuesday.

Quince referenced this lack of clarity from No.10 in his resignation letter on Wednesday morning. He was sent out to bat for the prime minister over Pincher on Monday, claiming Johnson was unaware of “serious, specific allegations”.

As he quit, Quince said he had “no choice” but to resign after it turned out he had been given “inaccurate” information over Pincher on Monday.

With such a growing chasm within the government, any idea of unity among ministers – also known formally as “collective responsibility” – is under threat.

All individual members of government are meant to be held accountable for actions and decisions of the government as a whole.

Collective responsibility also means ministers “should be able to have free and frank discussions prior to coming to a collective decision”, although this can remain confidential, according to the Institute for Government.

Once that position has been agreed, all ministers “are expected to abide by that position” – exactly what ministers were not able to do this week, as No.10 kept changing the goalposts.

As TalkTV’s political editor Kate McCann tweeted: “A real gulf here between where No.10 thinks the party is and where it really is.”

Former Tory chief whip Mark Harper also told Sky News that the people – No.10 aides – who briefed ministers on so-called “untruths” around the Pincher incident should “be held accountable”.

“People in public life have a duty to tell the truth.

“We can’t go on like this, and I think that’s going to be a matter for all my colleagues, those in government and those on the backbenches, about what steps we now need to take to deal with it.”

Much like Quince, Sunak wrote in his resignation letter that the public “is ready to hear the truth” about what is needed to get the country back on track post-Covid – suggesting once again that a lack of clarity from No.10 drove him to quit.

Javid also said the government was not “acting in the national interest” when he quit last night.

With the crisis still unravelling, there are new question marks over how Johnson can carry on if he does not even have the backing of his inner circle.

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