By Tim Ross, Jessica Shankleman and Alex Morales / Bloomberg News
LONDON — Boris Johnson put down the phone and panicked.
It was Saturday night and he had just received a call from his work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, who told him that after only six weeks in his Cabinet, she could no longer stand his reckless leadership and was resigning.
It was the second shock resignation in two days, after Johnson’s own brother quit in a disagreement over Brexit. In the prime minister’s office in 10 Downing Street, his advisers were gripped by an urgent and alarming question: Was it the start of a mass mutiny that could ultimately bring him down?
Based on private conversations with aides and officials, this article portrays the depth of the crisis of confidence that has hit Johnson’s government, less than two months after he took office, and which threatens to derail his premiership.
After Rudd’s call, Johnson and his officials began frantically contacting senior ministers to check whether they were also on the point of quitting. There was one they could not reach: Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith.
Johnson was worried. Smith, a pro-European, was former Prime Minister Theresa May’s chief whip and had worked tirelessly — without success — to get her Brexit deal through Parliament. Johnson himself led the campaign against May’s deal. For such a loyal and respected figure to quit would be highly damaging to the prime minister’s standing in his Conservative Party.
Convinced they were about to suffer another resignation, Johnson’s aides decided the minister must be fired before he could surface again and quit.
But Smith was in fact shut away at a conference on British-Irish relations in Cambridge and unable to get to his phone. Eventually, officials managed to get through and discovered he had no intention of resigning.
Smith never knew how close he’d come to losing his job. A spokesman for Johnson said the government didn’t recognize this version of events.
As prime minister, Johnson has adopted the hardest of policies on Brexit. His troubles stem from his early vow never to delay Brexit beyond the deadline of Oct. 31. Voters, he said, want the government to hurry up with leaving the EU, even if it means doing so without a divorce accord to soften the blow. Delivering that promise is now his central mission.
But Johnson leads a minority administration, with no power to enact his pledges, and has lost his authority in the House of Commons. Members of Parliament thwarted his Brexit strategy and passed a law blocking him from carrying out his threat to force a no-deal split.
Johnson responded by trying to trigger a general election. Opposition politicians would not let him do that either, leading to reports he could even try to defy the law to deliver Brexit.
On Sept. 6, during Johnson’s week from hell, his maverick chief adviser Dominic Cummings told his regular gathering of political aides from across the government to stay cool, like “The Fonz” character in “Happy Days.”
The prime minister had no idea Rudd was already planning to announce her resignation the following night.
When the call from Rudd came, Johnson was completely unprepared. Rudd explained her reasons: She no longer believed he was serious about trying to secure a deal with the EU to smooth Britain’s exit.
And she was dismayed at the “vandalism” of his decision to expel 21 previously loyal Tories from the party as punishment for failing to follow his orders in a Parliament vote.
Johnson asked Rudd to reconsider — but it was too late. News of her resignation broke on Twitter while they were still on the phone.
Facing an instant media storm, officials in Johnson’s team were on red alert for any other ministers who could quit. They had particular concerns about Smith, Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan, and Matt Hancock, the health secretary.
Reacting to the news of Rudd’s exit, Hancock said he was “gutted to see Amber leave” the government and the Tory party. But he urged other so-called moderates to “stay and fight for the values we share.”
Buckland, a moderate pro-European, spoke to Johnson. He tweeted later that he would not be resigning, and had talked to the premier about “the importance of the Rule of Law.”
Since Rudd quit, government officials have been in private shock over the disarray inside the administration and the direction the party is taking.
According to one government insider, Johnson’s efforts are heading for disaster. Another said the premier and his senior pro-Brexit aides — including Cummings — are out of their depth, winding each other up into a frenzy and liable to taking extreme, snap decisions.
The expulsion of the Tory rebels in retaliation for voting against Johnson’s Brexit strategy is the sorest point for many Conservative politicians. Cabinet ministers have urged Johnson to find a way to allow them back.
Tensions have also grown over Johnson’s legal battles, as opponents of a hard Brexit fight their cases in front of the country’s most senior judges. A Scottish court ruled this week that the prime minister’s decision to suspend Parliament was unlawful because his aim was to stop MPs intervening in Brexit policy.
One unidentified government official was quoted on Twitter hinting that they thought the judges were biased. Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng then fanned the flames, saying: “Many people up and down the country are beginning to question the partiality of the judges.”
Buckland, whose role oversees the courts system, retaliated. “Our judges are renowned around the world for their excellence and impartiality and I have total confidence in their independence in every case,” he said on Twitter.
Next week, the legal clash will intensify. A clutch of cases — including the Scottish ruling — are due to be heard in the U.K. Supreme Court. If Johnson loses, he will be forced to go back to Queen Elizabeth II and ask her to reconvene Parliament.
That would be his biggest humiliation yet.
Robert Hutton contributed to this report.