LONDON: Britain's Boris Johnson defied pressure from senior ministers and a mounting rebellion within his party to quit on Wednesday, vowing to stay on as prime minister and fight off any attempts to oust him.
By Wednesday evening, 39 ministers and their Tory MP aides had quit over the prior 24 hours, mostly from more junior positions outside the cabinet.
A cabinet delegation had awaited his return to Downing Street from a lengthy grilling by a parliamentary committee to tell him his time was up.
It was said to include hard-line interior minister Priti Patel and Nadhim Zahawi, who has barely been 24 hours in his new job of finance minister.
One encouraged him to make a dignified exit by setting his own timetable rather than face a confidence vote.
But despite the clamour for him to resign, Johnson was continuing to focus on the important issues, a government source said after his meeting with members of his top cabinet team. A senior Conservative said the prime minister was digging in.
"I am not going to step down and the last thing this country needs, frankly, is an election," he told a parliamentary committee earlier, saying he had a mandate from the 2019 national election, which he won with a large majority.
Johnson also refused to say if he would try to stay in the job even if he lost a confidence vote from his own lawmakers. That could come next week if they agree to change the party's rules, which only allow one such challenge a year. He narrowly won a similar vote last month.
Late Wednesday, Johnson fired one of his top cabinet allies, fellow Brexiteer Michael Gove, as he mounted a fightback against the cabinet revolt, a Johnson aide said.
"He sacked Michael Gove," Johnson's parliamentary private secretary James Duddridge told Sky News, adding: "The prime minister is in buoyant mood and will fight on."
A senior Conservative lawmaker on condition of anonymity said: "The prime minister is deluded if he feels he can cling on in the face of collapsed parliamentary support. He is embarrassing the Conservative Party and showing contempt for the electorate."
But culture minister Nadine Dories said she was behind Johnson and, when asked if others also still backed him, she replied: "Yes, definitely."
The dramatic resignations on Tuesday of his health and finance ministers triggered a growing swell of other ministerial departures, while many Conservative lawmakers openly said they wanted him gone, questioning his fitness to govern and his integrity.
At parliamentary questions on Wednesday some Conservatives struggled not to laugh when others poked fun at him and he took a pummelling from a committee of senior politicians over his past behaviour, his motivation and some of the scandals that have come to define much of his tenure.
The ebullient Johnson came to power nearly three years ago, promising to deliver Britain's exit from the European Union and rescue it from the bitter wrangling that followed the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Since then, some Conservatives have enthusiastically backed the former journalist and London mayor while others, despite reservations, supported him because he was able to appeal to parts of the electorate that usually rejected their party.
That was borne out in the December 2019 election. But his administration's combative and often chaotic approach to governing and a series of scandals have exhausted the goodwill of many of his lawmakers while opinion polls show he is no longer popular with the public at large.
Despite even one-time supporters saying the current crisis could only end with his resignation, Johnson vowed to fight on and his spokesperson said he was confident of winning another confidence motion.
"The job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances when you've been handed a colossal mandate is to keep going," Johnson told parliament. "And that's what I'm going to do."
All might change next week when the 1922 Committee that sets the rules for the Conservative parliamentary party holds an election to its executive that could usher in a rule change to allow a second confidence vote on his leadership.
Johnson has tried to reassert his authority by quickly appointing Nadhim Zahawi - a rising Conservative star widely praised for the successful rollout of COVID-19 vaccines - as finance minister. But Zahawi was among the group of ministers in Downing Street who were to tell him to go.
Earlier in parliament, senior ministers struggled to contain their laughter as the opposition Labour leader poked fun at his cabinet for being in the "charge of the lightweight brigade".
"At some point, we have to conclude that enough is enough. I believe that point is now," said Sajid Javid, in his resignation speech as health minister, with Johnson listening stony-faced.
His leadership has been mired in scandals over the last few months. He was fined by police for breaking COVID-19 lockdown laws, while a damning report laid bare breaches of those rules by Downing Street officials, and a committee is investigating whether he then lied to parliament about it.
There have also been policy U-turns, an ill-fated defence of a lawmaker who broke lobbying rules, and criticism that he has not done enough to tackle inflation, with many Britons struggling to cope with rising fuel and food prices.
The latest scandal saw Johnson apologising for appointing a lawmaker to a role involved in party welfare and discipline, after being briefed that the politician had been the subject of complaints about sexual misconduct.
With no immediate way of forcing Johnson from office, one Conservative lawmaker likened his determination to cling on to the attempts by former President Donald Trump to overturn the 2020 U.S. election result.
"We could end up in a Trumpian standoff," the lawmaker said. "This could end up causing enormous embarrassment and damage to the party."
(With Reuters and AFP)