Wednesday briefing: How long can the PM hang on? | UK news
Good morning. As of the sending of this email, Boris Johnson was still prime minister. But given it’s taken at least a few milliseconds to reach you, you may wish to check. Events are moving fast.
Yesterday was breathless from start to finish, but things really went haywire in the early evening, when Johnson’s interview apologising for the Chris Pincher scandal on the 6pm news bulletins was rudely interrupted by a breaking news alert:
Sajid Javid’s resignation as health secretary was swiftly followed by that of Rishi Sunak as chancellor – and in a matter of minutes, the prime minister’s attempt to regain control of an existential crisis for his premiership had been comprehensively wrecked.
For the very latest as Boris Johnson attempts to hold on to power this morning, head to the website, where the indispensable live blog will be up and running shortly after 7am. In First Edition, we’ll cram in as many extraordinary details of a wild day in politics as possible, and get you ready for another one. Here are the rest of the headlines – and stay for the front page round-up to discover which newspaper found a way to frame this as good news for the prime minister.
Five big stories
Coronavirus | It would be “sensible” for hospitals to reintroduce mandatory masks, the chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said, after Covid infections doubled in a fortnight across England.
Transport | British Airways is to cancel more than 1,000 additional flights this summer from Heathrow and Gatwick as staff shortages continue to affect its operations. The cancellations will affect 100,000 people.
Highland park shooting | The man alleged to have fatally shot seven people at an Independence Day parade in suburban Chicago managed to legally obtain five guns – including the murder weapon – after a suicide attempt and a threat to “kill everyone” in 2019, authorities revealed on Tuesday. He has been charged with seven counts of first-degree murder.
Ukraine | The mayor of Sloviansk has called on remaining residents to evacuate as the Russian invaders stepped up their shelling of the frontline Ukrainian city after the capture of Lysychansk on Sunday. The strikes came as Nato’s 30 members formally invited Sweden and Finland to join the alliance.
UK news | A leading Premier League footballer arrested on suspicion of rape has been further arrested on suspicion of two incidents of rape against a different woman. The 29-year-old, who is not being named for legal reasons, was released on bail until August.
In depth: ‘Are you planning on telling us the truth today?’
Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak’s resignations weren’t even the government’s first nightmarish interruption of the day: that had come before 8am, when Dominic Raab’s media round had a great big hole blown in it by a retired senior civil servant.
Simon McDonald, the former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, tweeted a letter in which he wrote that No 10 was simply not telling the truth when it claimed Johnson had been unaware of a formal complaint against Pincher – who resigned last week over claims he drunkenly groped two men – when he was appointed in February. McDonald said Johnson had been personally briefed; Raab learned about it on the air.
McDonald’s post set off everything that followed, but the seeds of the disaster had already been sown. Here’s what happened next:
How did the resignations unfold?
For weeks, Javid and Sunak have resisted calls to abandon ship. But their unhappiness was pretty blatant in footage of yesterday morning’s cabinet meeting – Javid’s in particular:
Allies of both men claimed yesterday that they had not acted in a coordinated way – although, if that’s true, the nine-minute gap between their tweets suggests that Sunak had his resignation letter ready to go. The Sun suggests that Sunak made his mind up yesterday morning. Amateur detectives may wish to note that Javid’s letter had a date on it; Sunak’s didn’t. “Finally,” John Crace wrote, “two members of the cabinet had decided they had a reputation worth saving.”
After that, the more minor departures came thick and fast: Bim Afolami, live on TalkTV; the reliable Johnson cheerleader Jonathan Gullis; trade envoy Andrew Murrison, who had the punchiest line when he said: “In February … I wrote a supportive op-ed for the Guardian in which I said that if you were obliged to leave office you would do so with your head held high. I would no longer write in those terms.” There were at least 10 resignations by the time Westminster went to bed.
The biggest shock of the day, though, came when Nadine Dorries abandoned – no, just kidding, she obviously gave Johnson her full support. Jacob Rees-Mogg also stayed, offering the airy explanation on Sky News that “losing chancellors is something that happens”.
Why did the resignations happen now?
Other than Johnson being caught in a crisis that seemed to underline every concern about his integrity? After McDonald’s intervention, everything was trending against the PM. Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis had to explain Johnson’s forgetfulness to angry MPs without a single minister for company on the front benches. The daily press briefing was delayed by more than half an hour, and opened with the question: “Are you planning on telling us the truth today?” As Marina Hyde writes: “There are highly unstable radioactive isotopes that deteriorate less quickly than a No 10 line.”
Maybe most telling, though, was the relatively obscure appearance of Lord True, who had to repeat Ellis’s task in the House of Lords. As he dutifully read out the government’s defence, he had the comic timing of quite a droll after-dinner speaker – and the assembled peers duly lost it, including his own leader, Baroness Evans.
Will Walden, Johnson’s director of communications when he was mayor of London, told the BBC that MPs viewed the feebleness of the press briefing as “the last straw”. And there had been plenty of straws already. Jessica Elgot’s superb account of the day relates one MP’s message to a colleague after seeing loyalists defend the PM on TV over the weekend: “I’m fucked if I’m ever doing that again.”
How did Johnson respond?
The prime minister’s interview came too late to change any minds, but he and his supporters had already been touring the House of Commons tea rooms to shore up what support they could. Later, after Sunak’s resignation, Johnson hosted drinks for loyalists and said that at least it would now be easier to cut taxes.
The prime minister had his new chancellor and health secretary in place in time for the 10 o’clock news. Chief of staff Steve Barclay’s move to health was relatively straightforward; there was more drama attached to the appointment of Nadhim Zahawi in the Treasury. After he was conspicuously absent from the list of ministers to declare their loyalty, he showed up at No 10, and emerged with the prize.
The replacement of Sunak with Zahawi is likely to be the most consequential event of the day in terms of policy. While Sunak’s letter made pointed reference to “difficult decisions” on the economy that the prime minister was not prepared to make, the Times reported Johnson allies calling Zahawi “a more suitable chancellor for growing the economy rather than balancing the books”. Johnson appears to think a significant tax cut is his best hope of winning back the right – and Zahawi is presumably on board.
What will happen today?
First up is Zahawi on the morning media round, a job his Treasury junior Simon Clarke had earlier refused, the Daily Mail reported. Johnson faces Keir Starmer at PMQs at 12. Then he has an unfortunately timed appearance at the House of Commons liaison committee, which has listed as one of its subjects “integrity in politics” – and includes such arch critics as William Wragg, Caroline Nokes, and Tom Tugendhat.
At some point in among all that is the possibility that Sunak and Javid will make resignation statements in parliament. Some will be wondering if the crucial backbench 1922 committee could call a meeting. And there’s the great unknown: will anyone else resign?
Can Johnson survive?
At this point, it’s quite hard to see why he would want to – but he has shown no inclination to depart. The Times reports a claim that he responded to an ally who asked if he was quitting last night by saying: “Fuck that.” A cabinet source tells Rowena Mason: “We limp on.”
The best news for Johnson is that the remaining members of the cabinet have declared their support. But so much else is against him that many have concluded – if they hadn’t already – that it is simply a matter of when.
“It’s a bit like the death of Rasputin,” said backbencher Andrew Mitchell on Newsnight. “He’s been poisoned, stabbed, he’s been shot, his body’s been dumped in a freezing river and still he lives.” But he said it was over for Johnson all the same. Even the leader in the Daily Mail, which has remained steadfast in its support for Johnson, reads more like a political obituary.
As Conservative minds turn to who Johnson’s successor might be, here’s a guide to some of the hopefuls. Ed Vaizey, the former culture minister, gave the BBC quite a funny summary of one candidate: Sunak is “so rich he’s uncorruptible, which is a very important point”, he said. “And also he’s one of the few members of the cabinet who can do joined-up handwriting.”
Of course, that is less a statement in praise of Sunak than in damnation of those who are yet to jump ship. And if those who remain are so unlikely to be motivated to leave, the battle to dislodge Johnson could take a while to reach what now seems like an inevitable conclusion. Having said that, now might be a good moment to check if he’s gone again.
What else we’ve been reading
The government is acting as if Covid is gone, writes Stephen Reicher – and so is the public. But that sense of safety is misplaced. He warns that a lack of caution is leaving us “exposed and helpless” to the next wave. Archie
I loved actor Juliette Binoche’s interview with the Cut (£) for its How I Get It Done series. “Eat, pray, love” celebrity Q&As can be eyeroll-inducing, but her answers – on professional criticism, work relationships, and ambition – are thoughtful and candid. Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters
Sharon Y Eubanks, who led the US big tobacco lawsuit, says that the fossil fuel industry faces a similar reckoning. Arguing that cases against big oil are reaching critical mass, she writes: “accountability is coming soon, and the implications will be vast.” Archie
“There’s not much to say about two evenings in the studio.” So says the producer behind Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, which was released 50 years ago. That is, until he gets talking to Kat Lister in a short but powerful feature about this most beautiful and bittersweet of records. Hannah
One of the more pleasingly weird stories of the week is that teens are going to screenings of the new Minions movie in suits. They’re getting banned, but Stuart Heritage isn’t having it. “The Gentleminion fad,” he writes, “has transcended film. It has become a true cultural event.” Craille Maguire Gillies, production editor, newsletters
Cricket | England completed their greatest-ever run chase on the final day of the Test against India at Edgbaston. Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow completed remarkable centuries as Ben Stokes’ side reached their target of 378 runs with seven wickets in hand.
Tennis | Cameron Norrie won a marathon five-set victory against the Belgian David Goffin to secure a place in the Wimbledon semi-final. Norrie came from behind to win 3-6, 7-5, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5 and will play champion Novak Djokovic in the last four.
Euro 2022 | The Women’s European Championship gets under way at Old Trafford tonight when England will play Austria in front of a crowd of 73,000. Sarina Wiegman’s team are among the leading contenders for the trophy
The front pages
Today’s headlines will make very grim reading in No 10 Downing Street with the Guardian splash pretty much summing up coverage across the newstands: “PM on the brink as Javid and Sunak quit”. The Times agrees, with a simple “Johnson on the brink”, while the FT has “Johnson on brink as ministers quit” and the Telegraph says “Johnson hanging by a thread as Sunak and Javid walk out”. There is more colourful imagery elesewhere with the Mail asking hopefully “Can even Boris the Greased Piglet wriggle out of this?”, and the Sun declaring “Last chance saloon”. “Finally” says the headline in the Mirror, and the Metro has “Going! Going! Gone?”.
“The whole rotten lot need to go” says the Record, while the Herald has “Johnson on the brink”. Only the Express manages to look on the bright side. “Boris fights on! Declaring … I’m now free to cut taxes”.
Today in Focus
Bangladesh’s catastrophic flooding
At least 100 people have died in extreme flooding in Bangladesh. Thaslima Begum speaks to the people trying to save lives and fight for climate justice.
Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings
A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad
England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford has, in recent years, been a steadfast campaigner against youth food poverty, holding the government to account and prompting a string of political U-turns. Children’s literacy is another passion for Rashford, who launched a book club last year to distribute books to those in need. Now it has been announced that this summer the Marcus Rashford Book Club will give 50,000 copies of his debut children’s book to underprivileged primary school pupils. Titled The Breakfast Club Adventures: The Beast Beyond the Fence, it is co-authored by Alex Falase-Koya and illustrated by Marta Kissi. To date the club has given away more than 100,000 books, with Rashford saying that reading offers young people “a great source of inspiration and motivation”.
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Bored at work?
And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.