In the Bunker: Boris Johnson’s last stand


On the morning of July 6, Boris Johnson was beavering away in his private study preparing for what was undoubtedly going to be a bruising session of Prime Minister’s Questions. After two and a half years in office, his government was imploding amid a series of scandals. The previous evening the chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid had resigned.

And the situation was about to take a turn for the worse. An old university chum had some especially grave news to deliver — in deadly soft fashion.

Michael Gove and Johnson had an especially intertwined and turbulent past. Their political psychodrama began when Gove was Johnson’s campaign manager for the Oxford Union presidency in the 1980s. Both developed careers as journalists on different publications in the 1990s and then became parliamentary colleagues in the 2000s.

Their relationship broke down in 2016, when Gove declared Johnson was unfit to be prime minister and became responsible for sinking Johnson’s first Tory leadership campaign. Even though Johnson brought him back into government as one of his most senior ministers, first at the Cabinet Office and then as levelling-up secretary, the prime minister’s most ardent loyalists never forgave Gove.

That Wednesday morning, Gove spoke to dozens of Tory MPs and ministers and many told him that Johnson’s time as prime minister was drawing to a close. He had come to the same conclusion. Gove was concerned that Downing Street had developed a bunker mentality and that Johnson was not receiving good advice about his prospects, so he decided to do something about it. Gove contacted Simone Finn, Number 10’s deputy chief of staff (and a close friend and former partner), to ask for five minutes alone with Johnson before or after the PMQs prep.

Throughout the Johnson premiership, Gove had been part of the team that role-played questions, quips and quibbles for the weekly jousts with opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer in the House of Commons (as one of parliament’s strongest, most amusing debaters, he had done the same throughout David Cameron’s leadership too). He arrived at 10 Downing Street early and was told by Finn he could have a brief word before the prep session began.

Gove looked straight at Johnson and delivered the fatal blow for the second time in six years: “Boss, I’m really sorry to say this but I think you should announce you’re standing down today.” According to those briefed on what happened, he went on, “It’s up to you obviously how,” and he explained how he saw events panning out, based on his conversations that morning.

“There are going to be a slew of junior ministerial resignations, many more than you may have been told. I anticipate they will include some of the best people in the party, people who are huge fans of yours. But you will not be able to get an administration together, it will be insupportable. If you survive that, the 1922 [committee of backbench MPs] will change the rules and you will lose a vote of confidence. I don’t want to see you go that way.”

Johnson sarcastically thanked Gove: “You’ve delivered the bullet in a polite way,” and he responded with a tale about one of his uncles who had “failed to take his meds one day”. The man was a planning officer in London’s East Ham and ended up in a dispute with his superiors, so barricaded himself into the town hall with a shotgun. The uncle was eventually bundled out by the police. “That is going to be me,” the prime minister said. “I’m going to fight, they’re going to have to prise me out of here.”

Gove, slightly stunned, responded: “OK, I totally understand, prime minister.” Johnson told him he disagreed with his analysis of the situation; that there was no strong alternative leader. “I think it would be bad for Ukraine, bad for Brexit, bad for the economy.” Gove acknowledged those factors and explained they were why he had remained in government “under stress” in recent weeks.

According to one close colleague, Gove had decided to tell Johnson the game was up because he thought it was impossible for him to go on: “Michael wasn’t going to run for leadership, he wasn’t in anyone’s camp, so he could tell him as the most senior minister in terms of experience. He felt it was his duty to do so — not to say anything would have been colluding in an illusion.” Gove did not issue an ultimatum for Johnson or threaten to quit himself, and told the prime minister he would not discuss the meeting with anyone.

Johnson did not see Gove’s intervention in such a pure or positive way. The prime minister afterwards told only a handful of his inner circle what Gove had said and was “absolutely furious” — particularly at the timing.

Several saw it as Gove’s final, ultimate treachery. One close colleague said: “It was a deliberate knife in the front before a key moment.” Another claimed that the Gove meeting “fucked [Johnson’s] mindset” ahead of the Commons: “Wednesday morning is all about the psychology of the PMQs and Gove knew exactly what he was doing.”

Then, in one of the most bizarre moments of a tumultuous day, Gove joined the PMQs’ preparation session at 10.30am as if nothing had happened.

Johnson’s special adviser Leonora Campbell role-played Starmer, as normal. Gove, who had told Johnson a mere 10 minutes before that he should quit, made several observations on how to deal with difficult questions about his future. One aide asked how he would respond if Sunak popped up to ask something. Guto Harri, Johnson’s fourth and final director of communications, responded: “Oh, I’m sure he’s living in California already,” and started humming “All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow, which includes the line “Until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard”. 

After the preparation session, Gove returned to his ministry on the other side of Westminster and told colleagues that Johnson had “utterly lost it” and had gone “mad”. Johnson went to the House of Commons for what would be one of his last PMQs. That lunchtime, Johnson was determined to carry on through sheer effort of will. One colleague recalled a conversation Johnson had with Geoffrey Cox, the attorney-general, during the 2019 Brexit wars in parliament. The lawyer said to him at one stage: “Prime minister, you just can’t do that.” Johnson replied: “Geoffrey, all my life people have been telling me ‘you can’t do that’. And I’ve always proven them wrong.”

Johnson’s authority was palpably dying at PMQs. The sombre mood among Conservative MPs confirmed they had lost faith in his leadership; he had no adequate response to the series of difficult questions about his handling of the sexual misconduct allegations against Chris Pincher, the party’s former deputy chief whip. 

Starmer, the Labour party leader, joked that this was “the first recorded case of sinking ships fleeing the rat”. Javid used his resignation statement to warn: “There’s only so many times you can turn that machine on and off before you realise that something is fundamentally wrong.”

And still the resignations from his government continued.

Back in Downing Street, the mood shifted to disbelief as it became apparent that it would be impossible to fill the widening ministerial gaps opening in his government. “It was absolutely insane,” one aide said. “That feeling only got stronger and stronger as the day went by.”

Another close Johnson ally said after PMQs: “It was done by this point, it was irrelevant what happened next because the course of events was set.” 

Yet Johnson disregarded the chaos unfurling around him and focused on his next duty: a two-hour appearance in front of parliament’s liaison committee. Roughly three times a year, the prime minister of the day appears in front of a special committee formed of select committee chairs to take evidence on any topics the senior MPs see fit. Even in happier times, for Johnson these sessions were testy affairs, where rivals would seek to take chunks out of him and he would sometimes struggle with policy detail.

Johnson prepared for two hours for the approaching session with his team, seeking to ignore the resignations going on around them — a “totally surreal” situation, one person present recalled.

Two more ministers resigned while Johnson was addressing the committee, and towards the end of the session Labour MP Darren Jones informed him of reports that a delegation of cabinet ministers was waiting for him back at Downing Street, likely to tell him that his position was untenable. 

The atmosphere back at Number 10 was sombre, with some staff in tears, realising that the end was in sight. But the prime minister was not giving up. During the afternoon, a team had been scrambled to a cosy but well-appointed room known as the study — Margaret Thatcher’s favourite place to work, where Johnson had punched the air to celebrate his 2019 election victory. The gathering became known as “the Bunker” and featured members of all of Johnson’s support networks, assembled for one final heave to try to save his premiership.

There was Nigel Adams, minister without portfolio and Johnson’s chief fixer, Conservative party HQ’s Ross Kempsell, chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris and his aide Charlotte Owen. Tory strategist Lynton Crosby was in communication from Australia, his protégé Isaac Levido was present, plus Will Lewis, Johnson’s former Daily Telegraph editor and friend. And from the Number 10 team, Harri was present, along with political aides Declan Lyons and Ben Gascoigne.

While the prime minister was taking questions from the liaison committee, the Bunker team had assembled a list of everyone who had not quit and who remained loyal to Johnson. Lewis looked at the list and stated: “This is enough, it’s a lot of names we’ve got here.”

Number 10 also asked the Cabinet Office just how small a government could be and still function. One Whitehall official said: “We looked at whether to go for a broad reshuffle or slim it down to the bare minimum.”

But some in the Bunker had privately concluded the exercise was in vain — and perhaps for the first time this was something that Johnson himself had begun to moot privately to a select number of people when he returned to Number 10 at 5.30pm. 

Before Johnson could see the ministers waiting to speak to him, two other meetings took precedence. The first was with Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee. The committee’s rules meant Johnson was technically safe from another challenge until June 2023. With tremendous pressure for another ballot, however, its executive committee had met that afternoon. The 18-strong group expected Brady to propose changing the rules for another contest, yet he was concerned about the legitimacy of such a move, given that the executive’s year-long term had almost finished.

He had an alternative: the 1922 would bring forward its annual elections to the following Monday, which would renew its mandate from Tory MPs, before rule change was discussed. One senior Tory said: “Graham thought it looked dreadful that we were pushing out the dregs of our year in elected office on something so important.”

His proposal was agreed.

Brady went into the cabinet room to see Johnson at around 6.15pm. The pair sat opposite each other, with Heaton-Harris at the far end of the long table, taking notes. The mood was businesslike. The prime minister was expecting Brady to tell him that the rules had been changed and another confidence vote was happening.

Instead, Brady explained the decision to elect a new 1922 executive, with the outcome due in five days. But Brady gravely told Johnson this was far from a reprieve: “In my honest assessment, given the mood in the parliamentary party, it is inconceivable that the new executive would be more averse to changing the rules.” Brady informed Johnson that it was “almost inevitable” a vote of confidence would take place on the Tuesday. “It is fairly obvious you would lose it,” he added.

The prospect of pushing the leadership question into the following week gave Johnson an opening to keep going. The prime minister was in a “firm frame of mind”, Downing Street insiders said, up for a fightback against MPs. He delivered Brady a robust defence of his record, speaking of “all the great things” he still had left to do with the 2019 election mandate.

“Boris was firmly of the view that if Conservative MPs wanted to stand in his way and prevent him from fulfilling his duties to the British people, they should be made to do it. They should have a confidence vote,” one ally said. Brady politely told him: “It would be better for the country, the party and for you personally if you didn’t push it to that point.”

Before returning to the Bunker, Johnson spoke to Queen Elizabeth at his weekly audience with her. No one except Johnson and the monarch knew what was discussed on that phone call, though it seems implausible that his dire political situation was not a topic.

One of Johnson’s inner circle confirmed “every possibility” was war-gamed in the Bunker, including a snap election — a particularly unwelcome prospect for the most recent intake of Tory MPs, many of whom had won slim majorities in former Labour strongholds. “They’re terrified because they’ve never been back to their patches at the ballot box,” said one person involved. An ally of Johnson confirmed it was “inevitable” that the idea was discussed in the final hours. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Brexit opportunities minister, made it clear to colleagues that he thought the idea was unwise. Johnson rejected the proposal, according to those present. “It was never going to happen,” one ally said.

However, such were the fears within Whitehall that Johnson might do something reckless if his position was threatened that secret planning had taken place in the preceding months in case he asked the Queen to dissolve parliament. In the lead-up to Johnson’s final days, there was much media chatter about the Lascelles Principles: a constitutional convention from 1950 that defined the circumstances in which a monarch could reject a prime minister’s request to do this. 

The Lascelles Principles were defined by Alan “Tommy” Lascelles, King George VI’s private secretary, in a pseudonymous letter (under the sobriquet “Senex”) to The Times. He set out the three criteria when an election request could be rightly rejected:

  1. The existing parliament was still vital, viable and capable of doing its job.

  2. A general election would be detrimental to the national economy.

  3. He [the King] could rely on finding another prime minister who could carry on his government, for a reasonable period, with a working majority in the House of Commons.

Even during the chaos of Johnson’s final days, all three of those conditions would surely have been met. Parliament was still viable, thanks to the Conservative party’s 80-seat majority, and there was no danger it would lose a confidence vote — MPs were terrified of being wiped out by Labour. Soaring inflation and the cost of living crisis would mean that a six-week campaign would harm the economy. And there were plenty of viable interim Tory leadership contenders who could have commanded a majority in the House of Commons.

How would this have been communicated to Johnson? For the Queen to reject an election request outright would have prompted a full-blown constitutional crisis and put the monarch in the most perilous position of her reign. One senior Whitehall figure said: “It was a question that couldn’t be put to the Queen because the Queen would have to say ‘yes’. The PM cannot ask the question to which she ought to say ‘no’ by the convention.”

Instead, a “magic triangle” of senior establishment figures had ensured it would never reach that point. Brady, representing the parliamentary Conservative party, Simon Case, heading up the civil service, and the Queen’s chief courtier Edward Young had private channels of communication to ensure safeguards were in place. 

As Johnson’s grip on power became more precarious, one senior Whitehall insider said of the moment: “If there was an effort to call an election, Tory MPs would have expected Brady to communicate to the palace that we would be holding a vote of confidence in the very near future and that it might make sense for Her Majesty to be unavailable for a day.”

Another senior official confirmed it would be politely communicated to Downing Street that Her Majesty “couldn’t come to the phone” had Johnson requested a call with the intention of dissolving parliament. One Johnson ally said he knew it was a fruitless idea too, that “the palace would have wanted to see if there were others who could command confidence instead of accepting his call”.

At this juncture, Brady would have been politely asked by the palace if his party could decide on another leader who would have parliament’s confidence. All the guidance was informal and never tested, as Johnson opted not to push the election button.

The last bold move discussed in the Bunker was another major apology outside Downing Street by Johnson for his handling of the Pincher affair. “That was quickly rejected because we’d already done about 50 of them,” one official said.

The small dining room can be found on the second floor of Downing Street, above the prime minister’s office and the cabinet room, and a couple of corridors along from the study that had become the Bunker. Stewing in and around this wood-panelled room for nearly three hours, with increasingly cold pots of tea, were Nadhim Zahawi, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Grant Shapps, Simon Hart, Michelle Donelan and Kit Malthouse. The security convention that phones should be left at the entrance of Number 10 had been abandoned, as ministers oscillated between watching Johnson’s liaison committee appearance, looking at social media, reading the news and WhatsApping MPs and their private offices with thoughts about when the government would collapse.

Number 10 aides were sent to mind the ministers, trying to ensure they did not work themselves up into more of a frenzy. One official who witnessed the scene said: “There was the most awkward silence, it was like a tea party. We kept pouring more and more cold tea because we had to do something. Because the aides were there, they didn’t want to talk amongst themselves.”

David Canzini, deputy chief of staff, popped into the dining room on a number of occasions and, according to those present, he pulled ministers aside and muttered that he too privately felt the PM needed to resign. The Downing Street team had begun to split. Others who felt he must stay on included Andrew Griffith, head of the Number 10 policy unit, Harri and Ben Elliot, Tory party co-chair.

A woman and a man walk side by side along a street
Boris Johnson’s director of communications Guto Harri (seen here, centre, arriving in Downing Street) was among those who felt the PM should stay on © Justin Ng/Avalon

As Wednesday afternoon drifted into the evening, the scene became more fraught; no one was sure exactly why they were being made to wait so long and what the prime minister was doing. News of his discussion with Brady had not made it up the staircase.

Those present assumed they would be seeing Johnson as a group. Along with Johnson’s strategist Kempsell, Heaton-Harris decided, however, that they should go in and see Johnson one by one — an echo of the cabinet procession that went in and saw Margaret Thatcher individually in November 1990 as she questioned their loyalty. “By going in one by one, he was able to make slightly different pitches to everybody,” one cabinet minister said. “Had we all gone in as Chris Heaton-Harris had originally planned, it would have been over by 6pm on Wednesday evening. The PM would have gracefully left, but they rolled the dice another time.”

Before the ministerial meetings began, the consensus in the small dining room was that it was over for Johnson and the chats would be about persuading him to exit gracefully. One minister said: “There was not a single person in the [dining] room, not one, who suggested that the PM should stay, with the possible exception of Ben Elliot.”

Before the audiences took place, though, Johnson told his aides he was not rolling over. “His view was ‘I’m not going, if they want me gone they’re going to need to dip their hands in blood and do it themselves’,” one aide said. 

The first minister to see Johnson was Nadhim Zahawi. According to those who waited with the newly appointed chancellor, he was the most emphatic that Johnson should quit, and that despite the prime minister’s patronage he was the “leading advocate for instant resignation”, as one colleague said. Zahawi was full of brio and confidently told Johnson that it was over. Yet the prime minister persuaded him that there remained a path through. “By the end of the meeting they were shaking hands, hugging and saying they were going to launch a new financial strategy,” one insider said.

Priti Patel, home secretary, became upset during her audience. She did not tell Johnson to go but said she concluded it was over. “She didn’t put the knife in,” one insider said. More cabinet ministers arrived for informal chats with Johnson, including the deputy prime minister Dominic Raab. Raab awkwardly told Number 10 staffers he had to attend a white-tie dinner at Mansion House in the City of London that evening, but required assistance with the outfit. An attendant was found with the skills to fix his bow tie. After he was dressed he saw Johnson, who found his outfit highly amusing. One insider said Raab offered a rare moment of levity: “Are you actually going to walk out of the front door to the world’s media in white tie?” Johnson asked, and Raab responded, “You’re finding this far too funny.” He ended up exiting the building by a side entrance.

Throughout the meetings, culture secretary and Johnson loyalist-to-the-end Nadine Dorries was ever-present in the corridors of Number 10, together with Johnson’s policy chief Andrew Griffith, drumming up enthusiasm and discussing how to keep the PM in place. Not everyone appreciated their efforts. “It was blind loyalty to the PM. They were nodding dogs, completely lacking any sort of common sense,” one senior official said. Later that evening, one of the last ministers to see Johnson was Welsh secretary Simon Hart, who had waited close to five hours in the upstairs dining room. Their meeting was to prove one of the more consequential that evening.

When Hart eventually saw Johnson, the prime minister told him: “I’ve got a plan, just give me till Tuesday. I can turn this around. We owe it to the 14 million people who voted for us.” The minister responded, “I love your optimism but I don’t think we’re there any more. That was an argument that might have worked six weeks or six months ago. But I think we’re past that point.” Hart told Johnson that if the 1922 committee didn’t move against him soon, they would find a way to “nail you to the floor one way or another”. He then pointed to the privileges committee investigation in the autumn into whether the prime minister had misled parliament over the “partygate” rulebreaking during the Covid pandemic. “I think the game is up,” Hart said.

By now, it was dawning on Johnson that his hopes were shrinking. “I realise I’ve only got a tiny chance of survival but it’s one I prefer to take,” the prime minister said. As Hart left Downing Street, he pulled Heaton-Harris aside and handed him his resignation letter. “If circumstances have altered overnight and he comes to the view this is unsustainable, chuck my letter in the bin and we’ll say no more about it. But if this thing is still raging in the morning, I will have to step aside.” Heaton-Harris thanked him for not quitting that night and Hart left for the pub.

Just as with Thatcher, the ministerial delegation had made the decisive difference. He would fight on for a few more hours, but Johnson realised there was likely no way out. He returned to the Bunker to see if it still might be possible to form a new government.

Upstairs in the study, the Bunker officials had wheeled out the reshuffle whiteboard and begun planning to fill the empty slots within the government. The number of resignations had risen above 40 and, although no further cabinet ministers had quit, they needed to find new secretaries of state for Wales and Northern Ireland (the prime minister had not seen Brandon Lewis but anticipated he would quit).

The Bunker team spoke to James Cleverly, a Johnson stalwart at the Foreign Office, who agreed he would take education. Shailesh Vara, who had previously served as a junior Northern Ireland minister, was lined up to take over the secretary of state role if Lewis went.

“Boris popped in to say ‘yes’ and sign off all these roles,” one official said. “We had to have a functioning cabinet that night, whatever happened.” After Steve Barclay had moved to health secretary, a new Cabinet Office minister was also required.

There was one other cabinet-level change Johnson was adamant to pursue immediately. Johnson had festered throughout the day about Gove’s pre-PMQs intervention and decided he wanted revenge. With the events of 2016 back in his mind, Johnson decided to boot out his levelling-up secretary. “That was his decision alone,” one ally said. “It was the pre-PMQs meeting — the PM felt he was very treacherous, an unnecessary personal blow on a day that was clearly terminal. Boris felt he really didn’t need to do that.”

A rumour had arrived at the Bunker that Gove was to resign that evening, fuelling Johnson’s ire. The prime minister was urged: “Don’t let him do this, you need to fire him.” So he left the study with Harri and Adams to call up Gove.

Gove had spent the rest of Wednesday in his department, avoiding a Commons vote at 7pm. “He didn’t think he would be a welcome presence in the voting lobbies,” one colleague said. He had returned to his official residence at 1 Carlton Gardens just off Pall Mall. He invited several friends, including Theodore Agnew, a Tory peer who had resigned from Johnson’s government over its failure to address Covid fraud, for drinks and to chew over the day’s trauma. Gove noticed a missed call from Johnson on his phone at around 9.20pm and several with no caller ID, which he assumed to be the Downing Street switchboard.

He returned the calls and asked Johnson if he was resigning. “No Mikey mate, I’m afraid you are. I’m going to have to ask you to step back from your role as levelling-up secretary. I’m reconstructing the government.”

In shock, Gove replied: “So you’re not resigning?” Johnson said: “No, you are.” Gove told him: “No, I think it should be you. I think you have lost the confidence of the party.” Johnson disagreed and told him: “I’m sure you can understand after our conversation this morning.” He wrapped up the call by thanking him for his service. Gove, bewildered, told his colleagues Johnson had lost it: “Poor Boris is going to be gone tomorrow, so there’s no particular point me doing anything.”

Number 10 took glee in the sacking, with a Johnson ally telling the media: “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.”

With the 10pm news bulletin approaching, team Johnson wanted to have new ministers to announce and to stabilise his standing. Diehard supporter Dorries took to social media to state that Johnson was going to carry on: “The PM’s priority is to stabilise the government, set a clear direction for the country and continue to deliver on the promises he made and the British public voted for.” James Duddridge, Johnson’s parliamentary aide, gave an interview to Sky News, fresh from the House of Commons terrace, where he insisted new ministers including “major appointments” would be announced that night. 

As the minutes ticked down, the phone calls became increasingly frantic. Cabinet secretary Case advised the Bunker that Buckingham Palace would soon be unable to approve the appointments that night. Johnson faced the prospect of further ministers resigning and the nation waking up on Thursday July 7 to a half-empty government. Johnson’s team were struggling to persuade MPs to take up the jobs; it was reaching the point where he could not form a credible government. Greg Hands, trade minister, was apparently dragged into Downing Street from a dinner in Chelsea to be offered the post of party chair. He refused. And still the resignations continued, reaching 43 by 10pm.

The Bunker made a major mis-step at this point, which resulted in an immediate cabinet resignation. Hart received a call from his chum David TC Davies, the junior Welsh office minister, who said he had been asked to go to Number 10 to succeed him as secretary of state. “I didn’t think you’d resigned,” Davies told Hart, who responded, “I haven’t.” Davies said he would not take the role and thought it was “disgraceful” they were trying to ease Hart out. Number 10 had assumed Hart would quit in the morning, but among all the chaos they had acted too soon.

Hart left the pub and called Heaton-Harris, fuming: “You’ve already offered my job to someone else, so we might as well call it quits now.” The chief whip profusely apologised and said it should not have happened. Hart sat on a park bench to tweet his resignation letter, when a Tory apparition appeared in the form of Charles Moore, Johnson’s former Telegraph editor. Moore asked Hart: “Oh Simon, what are you up to this evening?” Hart responded: “If you wait 15 seconds, I’m literally resigning.” Hart’s letter on Twitter said: “Colleagues have done their utmost in private and public to help you turn the ship around, but it is with sadness that I feel we have passed the point where this is possible.”

And at this moment, Johnson finally realised it was over. When Simon Clarke, another fervent supporter, refused to take the post of levelling-up secretary, other names were mooted in the study, including one close Johnson ally who had served him loyally as a minister several times. After hearing the name of the minister being seriously suggested, Johnson told the room: “It’s not fair on the nation to give them a D-list government.” The prime minister concluded that finally, after months of struggling on, he had reached the end of the road.

Johnson left the Bunker with a departing message: a plan for a cabinet would have to be ready for the following morning, the government would still have to function. But it would not be with him at the head. “I can’t do this, it’s all too ghastly, it’s not me,” he announced. 

At 11pm, the Bunker dissolved. The aides went home. Johnson returned to the Downing Street flat and spoke with his wife Carrie, who was supportive. She told him: “Do whatever you think is right.” He phoned Crosby, his closest and longest-serving adviser, to ask for his advice from Australia. “Mate, I’ve been thinking about it, what do you think? I think this is unsustainable,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to destroy the Conservative party.”

Crosby responded: “I think you’re right. My advice, based on everything I know, is that it’s irrecoverable.” Crosby told him he would be better focusing on his exit terms rather than facing the indignity of being heaved out by the 1922 committee. One of the Bunker team said: “That night, by the time he’d gone up to the flat, I think he’d made that decision. It wasn’t that he wanted to go, it was a case of ‘the fuckers are not going to throw me out the door’.”

Downing Street seen from the outside a night, with the windows illuminated
At 11pm Johnson returned to the Downing Street flat and spoke with his wife Carrie, who told him: ‘Do whatever you think is right’ © Reuters

The Bunker team had told Johnson they would support him until he personally decided it was over. “We were always going to fight to the end for him because we owed it to him,” one close ally said. Even if a government could have been formed that Wednesday night, the aides knew it would not last long. “We couldn’t sustain any more attacks. People were still resigning, people weren’t answering the phone. People were refusing jobs. We couldn’t do it. Boris told us: ‘The country deserves better.’”

Throughout the day, the prime minister had told aides that he owed the 14 million people who had voted for him in the 2019 election to deliver on their priorities. His pledge would only be partially complete: Johnson had taken the UK out of the EU, seen it through the coronavirus pandemic and taken a world-leading role in the Ukrainian war, but his administration had collapsed. Johnson slept on his decision to leave the job he had dreamt of since childhood. The next morning he acted on it.

Sebastian Payne is the FT’s Whitehall editor. ‘The Fall of Boris Johnson’, his second book, is published by Pan Macmillan on November 24

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