When Michael Gove arrived in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street study on Wednesday morning, the prime minister knew what was coming. The dejected features of his fellow Brexiter were a sign that the end was near.
It was Gove, Johnson’s campaign manager in the 2016 Tory leadership contest, who had betrayed his own candidate, declaring he was not capable of “leading the party and the country in the way that I would have hoped”.
Six years later, Gove’s initial judgment on Johnson was now shared by scores of seething Conservative MPs, who on Wednesday turned on the prime minister with a brutality rarely seen in British politics.
Gove, now levelling up secretary, arrived in Number 10 to help Johnson prepare for prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, knowing it could be one of his last such appearances.
According to officials briefed on the meeting, Gove told Johnson the time had come: he had to go. The prime minister was defiant and insisted he was determined to carry on.
Johnson might have written off this advice as further evidence of Gove’s treachery, were it not for the fact that his minister was simply reporting the facts: the Conservative party had turned decisively on its leader.
Shortly after the emotional meeting in Number 10 with Gove, Johnson appeared in the Commons at noon to face questions from MPs, a drowning man battling a vicious political current.
“Does the prime minister think there are any circumstances in which he would resign?” said Tim Loughton, Tory MP and former children’s minister, with icy contempt.
Less than 24 hours after two senior ministers — Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak — quit the cabinet, the rebellion was hardening. David Davis, the former Brexit secretary and vocal Johnson critic, said it was time he put “the interests of the nation ahead of his own interests”.
Gary Sambrook, another Conservative backbencher, accused Johnson of “always trying to blame other people” for his own self-inflicted problems. He said Johnson had privately criticised Tory MPs at the Carlton Club in London last week for failing to stop a drunken Chris Pincher, the disgraced former Tory deputy chief whip, from groping two men.
But it was Johnson’s failure to quickly disclose his knowledge of Pincher’s past inappropriate behaviour — raising fresh questions about the prime minister’s relationship with the truth — that prompted Javid and Sunak to quit.
Throughout Wednesday Johnson was battered by a series of ministerial resignations, while junior government officials quit and once-loyal MPs withdrew their support, citing their concerns about Johnson’s character, probity and honour.
Johnson told the Commons he had “a colossal mandate” from the people at the 2019 general election, implying this mattered more than the sullen ranks of Tory MPs behind him. He would “keep going”.
But in a sign of how quickly the mood at Westminster had turned against Johnson, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was already turning his guns on the people who might soon succeed the prime minister in Number 10.
Starmer claimed the cabinet was a “Z-list of nodding dogs” who had given Johnson political cover, while the prime minister went about demeaning his office and undermining standards in public life.
He said Johnson had been “propped up for months by a corrupted party defending the indefensible”. Starmer suggested the prime minister would soon be out: his aim was to tarnish those who remained with Johnson’s legacy.
Johnson looked crushed, but worse was to come when Javid, the former health secretary, effectively launched his Tory leadership bid with a devastating personal statement to MPs, declaring: “Enough is enough.”
Like Starmer, Javid was looking beyond Johnson to a Conservative leadership contest to come. He took aim at those ministers who had stayed in the cabinet, saying: “Not doing something is an active decision.”
As Javid sat down, Johnson hurried from the Commons chamber to be briefed on the rising tally of ministers and parliamentary aides no longer prepared to serve under him.
Johnson had said a “wealth of talent” remained on the backbenches, but William Wragg, Tory chair of the Commons public administration committee, claimed the prime minister would struggle to fill the vacant jobs.
Shortly after 2pm five ministers quit simultaneously, including Kemi Badenoch, the rightwing equalities minister, and Neil O’Brien, a former Treasury adviser to ex-chancellor George Osborne.
By now it had become abundantly clear to Chris Heaton-Harris, the careworn Tory chief whip, that the rebellion was broad-based — reaching into all sections of the party — and growing fast.
Johnson’s once-loyal fan base of Tory MPs first elected in 2019, many representing constituencies in northern England and the Midlands won from Labour, also withdrew their support, including Lee Anderson.
“Integrity should always come first and sadly this has not been the case over the past few days,” said the Conservative MP for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire.
At 3pm Johnson had to appear before senior MPs on the Commons liaison committee, answering questions on subjects including the war in Ukraine while his career hung by a thread.
Heaton-Harris could see what was happening. Johnson won a confidence vote by Conservative MPs last month by 211 to 148: it would therefore take only 32 Tories to switch sides for most in the parliamentary party to want him out. His majority was disappearing before his eyes.
Although Johnson insisted at the liaison committee he was not planning to call a snap election — a direct appeal to voters over the heads of his rebellious Tory MPs — some Conservatives fear the prime minister might be willing to take the party down with him.
One senior Tory official said: “We’re worried he could do something Trumpian.” Under the Conservative nightmare scenario, the 96-year-old Queen Elizabeth might be placed in the invidious position of having to decide whether to agree to dissolve parliament to allow an election to take place.
By 4pm, with Johnson still trapped in the fractious liaison committee hearing, Heaton-Harris and other senior ministers were preparing to tell the prime minister it was time for him to leave Downing Street with dignity.
A group of Johnson loyalists — including Grant Shapps, transport secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary, and Brandon Lewis, Northern Ireland secretary — planned to urge Johnson to quit before he faced the ignominy of another no-confidence vote.
Extraordinarily, Number 10 insiders said that Nadhim Zahawi, appointed by Johnson to succeed Sunak as chancellor only on Tuesday, was now among those telling the prime minister he should stand down. “The chutzpah is incredible,” said one senior government figure.
One person close to the unofficial coup said the delegation was “not co-ordinated” but that ministers had reached the same conclusion. “There are some departments with a secretary of state but no ministers beneath them — they’ve all resigned,” said the person.
Senior Tory MPs on the 1922 committee of backbench Conservatives were meeting at 4pm to decide whether to change the party’s rules to allow another vote on Johnson’s leadership.
The current rules state there is a “grace period” of a year between such ballots. The MPs on the 1922 executive decided not to change the rules immediately, hoping that Johnson would voluntarily quit after meeting his closest cabinet allies.
But the threat of another no-confidence vote was real. Elections to the 1922 executive will take place next Monday, and Tory MPs predicted the new line-up would approve a snap ballot if Johnson had not gone by then.
Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee, arrived in Downing Street to meet Johnson just before 6pm, but he had to join the queue of cabinet ministers waiting to offer their own counsel to the prime minister.
Although Nadine Dorries, culture secretary, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, Brexit opportunities minister, were among those said to be urging him to cling on, by far the larger group of ministers had come to tell Johnson his time was up.