Boris Johnson dramatically sacked Cabinet rival Michael Gove and rejected calls to quit as support for his leadership collapsed at Westminster, with the resignation of a third Cabinet minister.
The Prime Minister met ministers in No 10 on Thursday, where he was told he had lost the confidence of the Tory party and should not continue in office – but refused to listen.
Mr Gove was thought to have told the Prime Minister on Wednesday morning that it was time for him to quit.
That was followed by a delegation of Cabinet ministers going to No 10 to tell Mr Johnson he should stand down after losing the trust of his MPs.
No 10 sources confirmed Mr Gove had been sacked, with one telling the BBC: “You cannot have a snake who is not with you on any of the big arguments who then gleefully briefs the press that he has called for the leader to go.
“You cannot operate like that.”
Mr Johnson’s relationship with Mr Gove has long been troubled, with the Prime Minister’s leadership campaign in 2016 derailed when his rival withdrew support and decided to run himself.
But it was not only Mr Gove who sought to persuade Mr Johnson that his time in No 10 should end.
Home Secretary Priti Patel, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and Welsh Secretary Simon Hart were among the Cabinet ministers telling Mr Johnson to stand down.
Mr Hart on Wednesday night became the third Cabinet minister to quit, following in the footsteps of Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid.
In his resignation letter, he said that he wanted to help Mr Johnson “turn the ship around”, but “we have passed the point where this is possible”.
The PA news agency understands that Ms Patel spoke to the Prime Minister to convey the “overwhelming view” of the parliamentary party.
Mr Shapps is thought to have told Mr Johnson that he stood little chance of winning another confidence vote and should instead set out a timetable for a departure on his own terms.
Nadhim Zahawi, who was only appointed Chancellor on Tuesday, was also thought to be among those taking part in the showdown with Mr Johnson.
But Mr Johnson rejected suggestions he should seek a “more dignified exit” and will instead fight for his political future.
A No 10 source said: “The Prime Minister has a mandate from 14 million people to get a job done. He’s very conscious of his commitment to them
“If the party wants to stop him they have to take that mandate away.”
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the Tory 1922 Committee, spoke to Mr Johnson on Wednesday to set out the level of backbench opposition.
A new executive for the committee will be elected on Monday which could change the leadership rules, allowing for another confidence vote just a month after the last one – which Mr Johnson may lose given the way MPs have deserted him since Tuesday.
But a No 10 source said: “He has called Graham Brady’s bluff. All Graham could say is that there will be an election on Monday.
“A new 1922 committee on Tuesday could change the rules – but it’s not a given.
“The party could then demand a re-run of the no-confidence vote – but not a given.
“And the party could then decide to ditch the PM – but not a given.”
The source warned that “the choice is not Boris or no Boris.
“The choice is a Conservative government with a new Chancellor who will soon outline a new economic programme of tax cuts, deregulation and the benefits of Brexit, or three months of tearing each other apart to elect a leader with no mandate.”
The ally of Mr Johnson warned that ousting him could pave the way for an election which would lead to the Tories losing office to a Labour-Liberal Democrat-SNP “coalition of chaos” which could break up the UK.
The sacking of Mr Gove came after a day which saw 14 ministers quit, along with a series of parliamentary private secretaries (PPSs) – unpaid aides.
Danny Kruger quit as an aide at Mr Gove’s former department, saying he was “very sorry indeed” to hear his ex-boss had been fired as “it should be the PM leaving office”.
But James Duddridge, PPS to the Prime Minister, told Sky News: “There is plenty of talent within the party. I’m not going to go through the Cabinet reshuffle but I know that there are plenty of people keen, willing and able to serve and will do so under Boris Johnson.”
Allies including Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries and Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg all remained supportive of Mr Johnson.
Ms Dorries said the Prime Minister’s priority was to “stabilise the Government”.
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab also remained loyal to Mr Johnson and defended him at a session of the backbench 1922 Committee.
But since the resignations of Mr Sunak and Mr Javid on Tuesday night, dozens of MPs have quit as ministers, PPSs or trade envoys.
Mr Javid used his resignation statement in the Commons to say “enough is enough” and challenged other Cabinet ministers to consider their positions.
“Treading the tightrope between loyalty and integrity has become impossible in recent months,” he told MPs.
“I will never risk losing my integrity.”
He said “the problem starts at the top and I believe that is not going to change”.
In a message to Cabinet ministers who decided not to quit, he said: “It is incumbent on all of us to set high standards for ourselves and to take action when they are not met by others.”
The speech, which had echoes of Geoffrey Howe’s 1990 resignation statement which helped topple Margaret Thatcher, was heard in silence in the Commons, with Mr Johnson sitting grim-faced on the front bench.
The 14 ministers to quit on Wednesday were Will Quince, Robin Walker, John Glen, Victoria Atkins, Jo Churchill, Stuart Andrew, Kemi Badenoch, Neil O’Brien, Alex Burghart, Lee Rowley, Julia Lopez, Mims Davies, Rachel Maclean and Mike Freer.
In their resignation letters:
– Ex-children and families minister Mr Quince said he could not accept being sent out to defend the Prime Minister on television with inaccurate information on the Chris Pincher row.
– Former justice minister Ms Atkins told Mr Johnson: “I can no longer pirouette around our fractured values. We can and must do better than this.”
– Ms Churchill quit as environment minister, saying: “Recent events have shown integrity, competence and judgment are all essential to the role of Prime Minister, while a jocular self-serving approach is bound to have its limitations.”
The leadership crisis followed the scandal surrounding former deputy chief whip Mr Pincher, who quit after allegedly assaulting two men while drunk at London’s Carlton Club.
Downing Street initially said Mr Johnson had no knowledge of previous allegations against Mr Pincher, but the Prime Minister later acknowledged he had been informed of inappropriate behaviour dating back to 2019, and said he regretted keeping him in government beyond that point.
The Prime Minister’s authority had already been damaged by a confidence vote which saw 41% of his own MPs withdraw their support in June.
The loss of crunch by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton later that month triggered the resignation of party chairman Oliver Dowden, while there is still lingering resentment over coronavirus lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street.