The prime minister’s dissembling, his taste for obfuscation and self-serving half-truths, and his willingness to mislead are by now sadly familiar. To that extent, it came as no surprise on Tuesday to learn that Boris Johnson had indeed – despite multiple assertions to the contrary – been told of specific sexual misconduct allegations prior to appointing Chris Pincher as deputy chief whip. But sooner or later a tipping point was coming for ministers obliged to trash their own reputations to defend a dishonest, delinquent prime minister. On Tuesday night it came.
The seemingly coordinated resignations of the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the health secretary, Sajid Javid, surely signal that the waters are closing over Mr Johnson’s premiership. It had already become clear that a succession of scandals – and above all the prime ministerial contempt for the public demonstrated by Partygate – had done irreparable damage to Mr Johnson’s standing. But it took Tuesday’s extraordinary, devastating intervention by Simon McDonald, a former top civil servant at the Foreign Office, to convince Mr Sunak and Mr Javid to act.
Lord McDonald has spent a distinguished career exercising discreet influence at the top of government, advising foreign secretaries and prime ministers. His decision to publicly refute Mr Johnson’s version of events in relation to Mr Pincher was a highly unusual move made in exceptional circumstances. Exasperated by a prime minister whose claims he knew from direct experience not to be true, Lord McDonald decided to dispense with etiquette and demolish Downing Street’s defence of Mr Pincher’s appointment. Al hacerlo, he starkly confronted Mr Johnson’s cabinet with its own complicity in propping up a premiership that has plumbed the depths of impropriety.
Over the past five days, hapless ministers have once again been enviado to television studios to defend the indefensible and made to look like fools. A majority of Conservative backbenchers believe he should go, judging by the recent confidence vote that Mr Johnson won only with the help of those on the government payroll. The party’s catastrophic defeat in the Tiverton and Honiton byelection testified to the extent of grassroots Tory disillusionment with the prime minister’s leadership. A string of scandals involving sexual misconduct has joined Partygate in the public mind in defining an administration perpetually mired in unseemly controversy.
Against this dire backdrop, Mr Johnson on Tuesday tried to duck and dive his way towards the summer recess. Dispatched to answer an urgent question on the Pincher affair, the paymaster general, Michael Ellis, told the House of Commons that the prime minister had forgotten being told about specific complaints against Mr Pincher in 2019. This was greeted with incredulous guffaws by MPs, as was Mr Ellis’s claim that a “sophisticated and robust system for upholding public standards” in government remained in place. Far too late in the day, Mr Johnson then apologised for appointing Mr Pincher.
Britain deserves better than a prime minister who has become a laughing stock, presiding over a rudderless administration at a time of economic crisis. In the interests of preserving their own self-respect, other members of Mr Johnson’s cabinet must now follow the example of Mr Sunak and Mr Javid. The prime minister needs to be confronted with the truth: his time is up.