Westminster has always been run more by convention than by rulebook. Prime ministers are seldom forced out: they are persuaded that their position is unsustainable and they walk. Margaret Thatcher quit before facing a final vote. Tony Blair chose resignation in preference to an uprising led by Gordon Brown. Theresa May was technically safe from any leadership challenge when she resigned. After Remain lost the EU referendum, David Cameron decided to go quietly rather than face a warring party.
But Boris Johnson is not a creature of Westminster. He did not rise through its ranks, he built no tribe and he is more given to issuing edicts than winning people over. In the same way, he believes he can be vulnerable if he follows convention – something he has always tried to avoid doing.
Both Johnson’s chancellor and health secretary have now resigned, followed by a string of more junior politicians, both members of the 2019 Red Wall intake and One Nation Tories concerned about the threat from the Liberal Democrats. Last month Johnson led the party to the biggest by-election defeat in its history and only narrowly survived a confidence vote of his own MPs.
Johnson’s character, once his greatest asset, is now viewed by many in the party as his biggest problem. His denials over the Chris Pincher affair were the final straw. ‘It’s done, he’s a dead man walking,’ says a former minister. ‘This is just like the Catholic church moving a bad priest from place to place,’ says a serving minister. ‘I can’t be part of this.’
Nevertheless, the bulk of the cabinet has decided to stay – and this is why both the Prime Minister and his No. 10 team are digging in rather than packing their bags. ‘You’ll have to get a JCB to get him out of there,’ says one minister, who has backed him from early on.