Two resignation letters, one theme: Johnson must go

It can only be described as a damning judgment.

“I can, no longer, in good conscience, continue serving in this government. I am instinctively a team player, but the British people rightly expect integrity from their government.”

So wrote Sajid Javid, the former health secretary, in one of the most powerful resignation statements written by an outgoing cabinet minister that placed his decision to go squarely on the character of the prime minister, Boris Johnson.

Nine minutes later, Rishi Sunak, resigned as chancellor with a similar message. “The public expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously,” he wrote, implying that under the current prime minister none of the three apply.

“I recognise that this may be my last ministerial job, but I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning,” added Sunak, his letter written like Javid’s on the Commons constituency paper that reflects their self-imposed backbench status.

These are not policy disagreements of the type that famously forced Geoffrey Howe from office in November 1990, when the issue was Europe. They are a judgment, made by close colleagues, from which Johnson cannot easily wriggle free – and which opposition parties can repeat as long as he remains in No 10.

Yet neither Javid or Sunak spelled out what had brought them to this point. Neither refers directly to Partygate, the row about the refurbishment of the Downing St flat – or even statements that Johnson did know about complaints of alleged groping by Chris Pincher.

But they did not need to. “The tone you set as a leader, and the values you represent, reflect on your colleagues, your party and ultimately the country,” Javid continued, pressing home the point in a comma-laden letter written in the staccato style of a speech.

The heart of his statement is longer than Sunak’s.

Last month’s vote of confidence should have been, Javid argued, a moment for “humility, grip and new direction”.

But recent events, a nod to the evasions over what Johnson knew, when, about prior allegations about Pincher’s conduct, have revealed to him it was not.

“I regret to say, however, that it is clear to me that this situation will not change under your leadership – and you have therefore lost my confidence too,” concluded Javid. Not only is the issue Johnson’s temperament, but it is a problem that the former health secretary believes cannot be altered.

Sunak, however, pointed to broader policy disagreements.

“I have always tried to compromise in order to deliver the things you want to achieve. On those occasions where I have disagreed with your privately, I have supported you publicly,” he wrote.

It heralds the start of a pitch that could easily be interpreted as the core of a future leadership bid, in which the former chancellor made a link between his assessment of Johnson’s failings in character with failures in policy.

“We both want a low tax, high growth economy, and world class public services, but this can only be responsibly delivered if we are to work hard, make sacrifices and take difficult decisions,” Sunak wrote. “I firmly believe the public are ready to hear that truth.”

Johnson and Sunak had together planned to make a speech on the economy next week. But the former chancellor said that, in effect, he could not risk being seen side by side with Johnson, because he feared that his boss was incapable of being straight with the British public.

“In preparation for our proposed joint speech on the economy next week, it has become clear to me that our approaches are fundamentally too different,” Sunak wrote. Writing in the manner of a relationship break-up, he added: “I have reluctantly come to the conclusion we cannot continue like this.”

But it may be Javid’s approach, with its immediate emphasis, that is more powerful: “The country needs a strong and principled Conservative party, and the party is bigger than one individual. I served you loyally and as a friend, but we all serve the country first. When made to choose between those loyalties, there can only be one answer.”

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