By DANICA KIRKA and JILL LAWLESS
LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson battled to remain in office Wednesday, brushing off calls for his resignation after two top ministers and a slew of junior officials said they could no longer serve under his scandal-plagued leadership.
Johnson rejected demands that he step down during a stormy session of the House of Commons in the wake of a furor over his handling of sexual misconduct allegations against a senior official.
Later in the day, a delegation of some of his most trusted allies in the Cabinet paid a visit to Johnson at Downing Street to urge him to go, Britain’s Press Association reported.
But the prime minister rejected suggestions he should seek a “dignified exit” and opted to fight for his political future, citing “hugely important issues facing the country,” according to the news agency. It cited a source close to the prime minister as saying he told his colleagues there would be “chaos” if he quit.
Earlier Wednesday, members of the opposition Labour Party showered Johnson with shouts of “Go! Go!’’ during the weekly ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons as critics argued the leader’s days were numbered.
Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said Cabinet members who had defended Johnson through many scandals lacked integrity.
“Isn’t it the first recorded case of the sinking ship fleeing the rat?” he asked.
But more damningly, members of Johnson’s own Conservative Party — wearied by the many scandals he has faced — also challenged their leader, with one asking whether there was anything that might prompt him to resign.
“Frankly … the job of the prime minister in difficult circumstances, when he’s been handed a colossal mandate, is to keep going,’’ Johnson replied with the bluster he has used to fend off critics throughout nearly three years in office. “And that’s what I’m going to do.”
His fellow Conservatives listened quietly and offered little support.
The 58-year-old Johnson is known for his ability to wiggle out of tight spots, managing to remain in power despite suggestions that he was too close to party donors, that he protected supporters from bullying and corruption allegations, and that he misled Parliament about government office parties that broke COVID-19 lockdown rules.
He hung on even when 41% of Conservative lawmakers voted to oust him in a no-confidence vote last month and formerly loyal lieutenants urged him to quit.
But recent disclosures that Johnson knew about sexual misconduct allegations against a lawmaker before he promoted the man to a senior position in his government pushed him to the brink.
Many of his fellow Conservatives were concerned that Johnson no longer had the moral authority to govern at a time when difficult decisions are needed to address soaring food and energy prices, rising COVID-19 infections and the war in Ukraine. Others worry that he may now be a liability at the ballot box.
Former Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who helped trigger the current crisis when he resigned Tuesday night, captured the mood of many lawmakers when he said Johnson’s actions threatened to undermine the integrity of the Conservative Party and the British government.
“At some point we have to conclude that enough is enough,” he told fellow lawmakers. “I believe that point is now.”
Johnson’s grilling in Parliament was the first of two Wednesday. He was also questioned by a committee of senior lawmakers.
Under current party rules, another no-confidence vote cannot be held for another 11 months, but party members can change that rule.
Months of discontent over Johnson’s judgment and ethics erupted when Javid and Treasury chief Rishi Sunak resigned within minutes of each other on Tuesday evening. The two Cabinet heavyweights were responsible for tackling two of the biggest issues facing Britain — the cost-of-living crisis and COVID-19.
In a scathing letter, Sunak said: “The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously. … I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning.”
Javid said the party needs “humility, grip and a new direction,” but “it is clear this situation will not change under your leadership.”
Mindful of the need to shore up confidence, Johnson quickly replaced the ministers, promoting Nadhim Zahawi from the education department to treasury chief and installing his chief of staff, Steve Barclay, as health secretary.
But the resignations of more than 30 junior ministers and ministerial aides followed Tuesday and Wednesday.
As Johnson dug in, critics accused him of refusing to accept the inevitable and of behaving more like a president than a prime minister by referring to his “mandate.” In Britain, voters elect a party to govern, not the prime minister directly.
Former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said late Tuesday that Johnson’s time was finally up.
“It’s a bit like the death of Rasputin: He’s been poisoned, stabbed, he’s been shot, his body’s been dumped in a freezing river, and still he lives,’’ Mitchell told the BBC. “But this is an abnormal prime minister, a brilliantly charismatic, very funny, very amusing, big, big character. But I’m afraid he has neither the character nor the temperament to be our prime minister.”
The final straw for Sunak and Javid was the prime minister’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations against Conservative lawmaker Chris Pincher.
Last week, Pincher resigned as deputy chief whip after complaints he groped two men at a private club. That triggered a series of reports about past allegations leveled against Pincher — and shifting explanations from the government about what Johnson knew when he tapped the man for a senior job enforcing party discipline.
It was all too much for ministers who have been sent out to defend the government’s position in radio and TV interviews, only to find the story changed within a few hours.
Bim Afolami, who quit as Conservative Party vice chairman on Tuesday, said he had been willing to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt — until the Pincher affair.
“The difficulty is not overall the program of the government,” he said. “The problem is character and integrity in Downing Street, and I think that people in the Conservative Party and people in the country know that.”
Paul Drechsler, chair of the International Chamber of Commerce in Britain, said change is needed at the top if the government is going to address a growing economic crisis.
“I would say the most important thing to do is to feed people who are hungry,’’ he told the BBC. “The poorest in our society are going to be starving to death the second half of this year. That needs to be addressed.”
This story has ben updated to correct the spelling of the last name of the chair of the International Chamber of Commerce in Britain. It is Drechsler, not Drexler.
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