Indo-Pak jugalbandi catalysed UK PM Boris Johnson's exit

Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid, who both resigned on Tuesday within 10 minutes of each other, denied they had conspired to evict Johnson. But BBC reported that they had met over the weekend

Boris Johnson (Photo courtesy: DW)
Boris Johnson (Photo courtesy: DW)

Ashis Ray

That Boris Johnson was forced to resign metaphorically at gunpoint is yesterday's story. So is his Trumpesque refusal to recognise reality. He was acutely aware the Partygate scandal (socialising at his office-cum-residence in Downing Street in violation of Covid lockdown laws) – which surfaced in early December – was a serious problem. He serially lied about this from saying it hadn't happened to being either unaware of it or not being conscious that it had broken rules promulgated by him to knowingly misleading Parliament more than once.

In Britain's unwritten constitution and by convention, the last-mentioned misdemeanor can only be remedied by a resignation.

Ultimately, it was his untruth about not being briefed about his Conservative party's deputy chief whip's serially sexual misbehaviour – exposed in a letter made public by a retired civil servant, Lord Simon MacDonald – that broke the camel's back.

What now? With Johnson at best reduced to a lame duck caretaker prime minister, a leadership contest in which Conservatives will vote will choose a successor.

Normally this consumes 2-3 months. But a significant number of Conservative MPs are adamant about not allowing Johnson to continue in an interim capacity until the autumn. Thus, frantic discussions were underway to minimise the time frame – including submissions to the '1922 Committee' of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, which conducts elections of a new leader – to shorten the process.

Another idea floating in Whitehall and Westminster on Thursday morning was of having Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, to fulfil the stopgap role. The challenge is to straddle the British Parliament's sacrosanct summer recess, beginning in a fortnight, and yet hasten the procedure.

Who, then, are the runners? Johnson’s unprecedented inclusion of non-whites as senior cabinet ministers – among them four of Indian origin – was good optics, but also a cunning ploy, for they were politically lightweight and unlikely to challenge his authority.

But while Home Secretary Priti Patel and Attorney General Suella Braverman caused controversy with their extremist policies or advice, not to mention their alleged lack of competence, Alok Sharma grew in stature with his steady performance as President of COP 26, while Rishi Sunak, fast tracked to be the second most powerful position in the British government – that of Chancellor of the Exchequer – rose and fell in public esteem with his generosity with furloughs and other assistances during Covid and subsequent tax rises to reduce the government borrowing respectively.

Braverman rushed to throw her hat into the ring as a contestant for the top job. It would be surprising if she is taken seriously by her party. For several months, speculation has mounted on the prospects of Sunak, Liz Truss, currently Foreign Secretary, and Jeremy Hunt, who has been Secretary of State for Health and Foreign Affairs in the past, but opted for the back benches after losing the leadership battle to Johnson three years ago.

Added to that list are Ben Wallace, who has done his chances no harm as Defence Secretary during the Russian invasion of Ukraine,; Sajid Javid, who resigned as Health Secretary on Tuesday, not to mention Penny Mordaunt, presently a minister of state; Tom Tugendhat, a former soldier and chair of the House of Commons' Foreign Affairs Committee; Nadhim Zahawi, who for 36 hours stepped into Sunak shoes as Chancellor, and Michael Gove, who was sacked as Levelling Up Secretary by Johnson on Wednesday, after he reportedly asked him to resign.

It has been the most chaotic day and a half in British politics in memory, since Javid and Sunak announced their resignations from their cabinet posts within 10 minutes of each other on Tuesday evening. Nearly 60 fellow ministers followed suit up to Thursday morning. It rendered the Johnson government rudderless and unsustainable.

The incumbent helmsman is said to have rejected his cabinet ministers' advice to step down on Wednesday evening. On Thursday morning, though, he finally admitted the game was up. The '1922 Committee' was, according to one of its senior officials, preparing to inform him that it would change the rules regarding no-confidence motions against prime ministers not being permitted with a year – the last one having taken place four weeks ago – to vote him out, if he did not do the right thing.

The governments of India and Pakistan may be daggers drawn. But Indian and Pakistani origin senior cabinet ministers in the British government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson – Sunak and Javid – combined to catalyse his ouster. Javid and Sunak denied they had conspired to evict Johnson. But BBC reported the two had met over the weekend.

On Wednesday, Javid made a searing personal statement about his resignation in the house – as an outgoing senior minister is entitled to. He said: ‘I have concluded that the problem starts at the top and that it’s not going to change.’ He added: ‘Enough is enough.’

BBC wrote: ‘He made it clear in the bluntest of terms that he had been lied to over Partygate (the law-breaking parties at Johnson’s office-cum-residence during COVID-19).’

The broadcaster described it as a ‘rallying cry’ to members of Javid's ruling Conservative party. His fellow MPs listened to him in grim silence. Many even cheered him. The writing was on the wall for Johnson!

Sunak did not directly accuse Johnson of impropriety in his letter of resignation. He instead highlighted ideological and policy differences, which sounded like him advocating fiscal prudence versus Johnson wanting to borrow and spend.

Sunak stated: ‘I have always tried to compromise in order to deliver the things you want to achieve. On those occasions where I disagreed with you privately, I have supported you publicly.’ He however added: ‘Our people know that if something is too good to be true then it’s not true.’

Sunak mentioned in his correspondence: 'The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously. I recognise this may be my last ministerial job, but I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning.’

Unless Sunak has plans of quitting politics altogether, few believe he will not be a minister again. However, historically in the Conservative party, one who openly rebels doesn’t generally succeed. An apparent loyalist in the cabinet or a former cabinet minister presently in the backbenches does. In 1990, Michael Heseltine went public in his opposition to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but didn't replace her. John Major, who silently remained in the cabinet, did.

The catalogue of events will record that an Indo-Pak jugalbandi – deliberately designed or not – accelerated Boris Johnson's departure as UK Prime Minister.

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