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Despite waning support from his party, Britain's Boris Johnson says he won't resign

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is insisting he will not resign after another crisis has rocked his leadership. At today's weekly Prime Minister's Questions session in Parliament, opposition members shouted bye-bye, Boris. Johnson, though, remained defiant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: It is a very simple reason why they want me out. And that is...

(CROSSTALK)

JOHNSON: And that is because they know, Mr. Speaker, that if - that otherwise, we are going to get on and deliver our mandate and win another general election. And that is the reality, Mr. Speaker.

CHANG: But even for many within his Conservative Party, the question is not will Johnson leave; it is when. Willem Marx is in London for NPR and joins us now with the latest. Welcome.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: Thanks so much, Ailsa.

CHANG: So this time yesterday, Willem, we were just talking about two resignations from Johnson's cabinet. What has happened today? Catch us up.

MARX: Well, yeah, we had dozens more members of his government resign, including a further 15 ministers. It goes without saying this is pretty unprecedented. The last time a mass government resignation on this scale happened, I think, was back in 1932. To remind folks how we got here, Johnson's seen support among members of his own Conservative Party slowly ebb away over the course of this year, largely due to crises of his own making, particularly the fact that Downing Street, his office and official residence, played host to a large number of illegal parties during COVID-19-related restrictions that prevented ordinary people at the time from gathering socially.

He and his team handled the fallout from investigations into those parties really badly, and the Conservatives subsequently lost two constituency elections. And that was a sign that ordinary British voters were perhaps turning against Johnson and his party. So after that, last month, the Prime Minister faced a vote of no confidence from his fellow Conservative members of Parliament. He won it, but far from convincingly.

And so when another scandal arose last week focused on alleged sexual assaults by a conservative legislator that Johnson had promoted to a senior government role, questions were once again raised about his judgment as leader. And when Johnson then failed to immediately disclose that he had known about previous complaints against that same legislator, those two resignations you mentioned yesterday from among his most senior cabinet members, they took place.

CHANG: Well, I mean, we just heard Prime Minister Johnson say he will fight on. At this point, can he? What do you think?

MARX: Well, in a word, yes, at least in terms of the mechanics and at least for a few more days. He's repeatedly said he will not voluntarily resign. And having won his party a very substantial majority in a general election just back in 2019, Johnson's argument today seems to be that he retains a powerful mandate from the British public, even though a series of polls in recent weeks have suggested the majority of people in the U.K. would like to see him gone. On top of all the resignations, he's also just sacked one of his other very senior ministers, a man considered by many to be one of the chief intellectual architects of the Johnson government agenda. He's also already appointed replacements for the first two senior cabinet members to resign yesterday, his finance and health ministers.

And members of the Conservative Party - this is where it gets complicated. In the House of Commons, Britain's elected lower chamber in Parliament, cannot currently, under their own rules, vote to remove him as head of their party in Parliament for another 11 months, precisely because he survived a no confidence vote last month. Some of them now seem to be trying to change those rules as early as next week. That would allow for a new confidence vote. And if he's lost as much support as today's resignation seem to suggest, it's unlikely he'd survive a second time.

CHANG: All right. That is reporter Willem Marx in London. Thank you very much.

MARX: Thanks so much, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Willem Marx