Boris Johnson already knew more of his cabinet ministers wanted him gone before he went to face his MPs at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday. Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, and Simon Hart, the Welsh secretary, had told him to quit.
But the prime minister was immovable. He pressed on with the day, determined to answer questions three hours later from select committee chairs on the price of grain in the Bosphorus and the merits of road pricing at the liaison committee.
But even with a delegation of “men in grey suits” waiting in No 10 to tell him it was over, Johnson would not budge. Priti Patel, his home secretary, said it was time to go. Grant Shapps, his “numbers man”, told him that he did not have the numbers – he would lose an imminent second confidence vote.
There might have been more. Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, was corresponding from a Toby Carvery car park in Middlesbrough. Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, was waiting to board a flight from Belfast. Both made it known they backed the message their colleagues had to deliver.
The new chancellor, Nadhim Zahawi, was reportedly among their number but a No 10 source said he had raised the prospect of fighting on.
The source said Johnson’s mood was defiant: “He said millions of people voted for me only two years ago – and I’m going to fight this to the end. I can’t just pack that in.”
Sources in the room said there was nothing anyone could do to persuade him. “I am not sure what happens next when the men in grey suits come for you and you just – don’t go,” one Tory source said.
Gove had already told the prime minister that the party had lost confidence in him. His old rival visited Johnson in person, saying he was certain the party was about to remove him as leader. Gove urged him to go on his own terms. The levelling up secretary’s tone was grave – promising he would not stand again for the leadership and insisting he was not working with any campaign.
Far from accepting his advice, Johnson went nuclear. He sacked Gove that evening, after the overtures of fellow cabinet ministers also failed. It was enough for Hart, who resigned an hour later. He said he had “desperately hoped” not to write his letter of resignation.
Cabinet ministers said some of them had actually urged Johnson to quit on Tuesday evening, saying they should not be forced into a mass resignation and plunge the country into chaos. Johnson refused. Patel in particular is unlikely to resign because of what she believes to be the risk of leaving the Home Office with no one at the helm.
As his ministers waited in Downing Street, the prime minister was in front of an increasingly farcical two-hour hearing of the liaison committee – openly declaring that a “wealth of talent” would emerge for an imagined ministerial reshuffle. At least 38 of his frontbenchers and payroll had quit.
Johnson headed down the escalator from his committee hearing staring at his phone – perhaps the first moment he had seen the news confirmed that his cabinet ministers were waiting for him in No 10. James Duddridge, his parliamentary aide, was a physical shield. A young Tory staffer yelled “resign” as he made his way to the car.
Throughout his many public appearances on Wednesday, Johnson appeared genuinely convinced he would find a way through. Ministers – many now ex-ministers – said they were gobsmacked he proceeded with PMQs and his committee hearing.
By the time he arrived at PMQs, Johnson had already suffered new announcements from 11 MPs that they could not support him. Two more went while he was on his feet in the chamber.
When Theresa May faced her most difficult moment in the chamber, her husband came to watch and support. This time, up in the gallery, Johnson was watched by his former Telegraph boss Charles Moore, whom he put in the House of Lords.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, knew it was his moment and landed blows with “charge of the lightweight brigade” and “the ships fleeing the rat”. He whispered “was that OK?” as he sat down next to his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves.
Johnson’s MPs were by now in open revolt – William Wragg, Tim Loughton, David Davis all urged him to go. But most devastating was Gary Sambrook, the “red wall” MP who had agonised over whether to keep backing Johnson.
“In an attempt to boost morale in the [Commons] tea room, the prime minister said to one table: ‘There were seven MPs in the Carlton Club last week, and one of them should have tried to intervene to stop Chris [Pincher, the deputy chief whip] drinking so much,’” Sambrook said, his voice dripping with disdain.
“As if that was not insulting enough to the people who did try to intervene that night, it is insulting to the victims to say that drink was the problem.” Labour MPs applauded loudly as he sat down.
Sajid Javid, the departed health secretary, had asked to deliver a personal statement, flanked by two close allies, the resigned Treasury minister John Glen and Rob Halfon, his best friend since university. It looked like a leadership team in the making. Johnson and his cabinet stayed seated for Javid to speak.
It was a personal speech on integrity but the former cabinet minister said he had been repeatedly misled on both Partygate and Pincher by senior figures in No 10. As Javid said the next leader must work to bring the country together, Johnson arch-ally Nadine Dorries barely stifled a yawn. The cabinet swiftly departed as Javid sat down. Labour MPs yelled: “Bye, Boris!”
In the atrium of Portcullis House, it was standing room only. David Canzini, the prime minister’s deputy chief of staff, hovered keeping a watchful eye. But all pretence that Johnson could survive was now gone among the vast majority of MPs. Asked if it was over, a cabinet minister grimaced and nodded.
One ex-minister who has been studiously loyal to Johnson loudly guffawed when asked if he would vote for the prime minister again if the 1922 Committee changed the no confidence vote rules. “Absolutely not, I can’t actually think of anyone who would. It’s as over as it possibly could be.”
An ex-cabinet minister said: “We have finally skewered the greased piglet.” Another former minister, demonstrably loyal, said he had been briefly sounded out by a whip about whether he might fill a job and laughed down the phone. “My whip is telling us they can’t fill the positions. They aren’t trying. What could anyone possibly offer? Anyone who takes a job would be a joke.”
Johnson was scheduled to appear before the liaison committee at 3pm. Among its members are some of his most bitter critics: Tom Tugendhat, William Wragg, Caroline Nokes, Tobias Ellwood. With questions hanging over whether his premiership would be finished by the end of the hearing, he ploughed on with discussing Ukraine and the cost of living.
“This is absolutely surreal,” one committee member texted from the room. “Who cares what he thinks about anything?”
Johnson was superficially composed and smiling as he spoke to the stony-faced MPs, but he was also sat on the edge of his seat, rocking as he answered their questions. In an extraordinary moment, the transport chair, Huw Merriman, sent a letter of no confidence in the prime minister as he sat facing him in the room.
Tory MPs on the committee shook their heads as he gave defiant answers, and were glued to their phones, passing notes and showing each other their screens as the resignations kept coming in. Ellwood said it was the “most bizarre moment of my political career” to watch the prime minister claiming he would carry on. “This is it – the final curtain,” he added.
As Johnson departed the parliamentary estate with many of his cabinet waiting to confront him, one remaining Johnson stalwart lingered behind, looked red-eyed, glued to their phone. They insisted they remained loyal. But would Johnson find a way out? “I don’t know.”
Members of the 1922 backbench committee executive were at their regular 4pm meeting in a small committee room in Portcullis House. Many of their most prominent members were absent, including Wragg, Halfon and Bernard Jenkin.
There were hard arguments that the weight of MPs’ feeling was now so great the rules should be changed to allow a confidence vote in Johnson to take place immediately.
But the knowledge that cabinet ministers were now prepared to wield the knife made the decision less imperative than it had been even an hour earlier.
The decision was made to bring forward the election of a new committee to this Monday – meaning there would be a certain mandate for any rule change from the whole parliamentary party.
Asked if the prime minister would still be in place by then, the MP Alec Shelbrooke said: “Have you found a single person in the building who thinks that?”
Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, departed to the Cabinet Office carrying a sheaf of papers. He would need to join the queue for an audience. Rumours were at fever pitch that a defiant Johnson would call a general election on Thursday morning, arguing that the people must decide.
But one Tory MP said they had made inquiries with very senior figures and insisted Johnson would be told by the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, that it would be hugely embarrassing to the Queen if he did so – putting her in the position of facing a controversial decision on whether to deny Johnson one.
“He would have to defy the advice of his most senior officials,” the MP said. It would not be exactly unprecedented.