Boris Johnson was on Thursday publicly criticised by chancellor Rishi Sunak over his conduct, on a day of chaos when four of the prime minister’s most senior aides left Downing Street.
Munira Mirza, Johnson’s policy unit chief and close ally for almost 15 years, quit, denouncing Johnson’s claim on Monday that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer had failed to prosecute the late sex offender Jimmy Savile.
Rather than defending Johnson, Sunak used a Downing Street press conference to describe Mirza as a “valued colleague” while condemning the prime minister by saying: “Being honest, I would not have said it.”
Allies of Mirza say she quit “on a point of principle” but within hours Johnson had launched a brutal, though long-expected, clear-out of his Downing Street team, with other senior advisers heading for the exit.
Dan Rosenfield, Johnson’s chief of staff, resigned after failing to get a grip on a chaotic Number 10 operation, which is riven with factions.
Martin Reynolds, the principal private secretary in Johnson’s office who organised the lockdown-breaking “bring your own booze” party in the Downing Street garden, also resigned after a conversation with Johnson.
Jack Doyle, Johnson’s director of communications, left too, telling friends he had only intended to do the job for two years.
Some Tory MPs had demanded the shake-up as a price for continuing to support the embattled prime minister, but the upheaval in Number 10 spoke to an administration in crisis.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, urged others to join the exodus, writing on Twitter that the prime minister was “finished”. He added: “Push what is falling.”
Sunak said he would “miss working with Munira”, who was arguably Johnson’s most valued aide since his days as London mayor.
Downing Street officials say Johnson views his chancellor, a potential leadership rival, with growing distrust.
Mirza said in her resignation letter that the prime minister had “no fair or reasonable basis” to accuse Starmer, former director of public prosecutions, for failing to act against Savile, a notorious paedophile.
“This was not the usual cut and thrust of politics; it was an inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child sex abuse,” she wrote in her resignation letter.
Speaking ahead of Mirza’s resignation on Thursday, Johnson tried to retreat on the issue: “I’m talking not about the leader of the opposition’s personal record when he was DPP and I totally understand that he had nothing to do personally with those decisions.”
The resignations intensified speculation over Johnson’s future as party leader; three more Conservative MPs publicly submitted letters of no confidence in him on Wednesday.
Mirza was promptly replaced as head of the Number 10 policy unit by Andrew Griffith, the former finance director at Sky who became an MP in 2019. In what turned out to be a farewell briefing by Doyle, he told the Financial Times that Griffith would be “creative and imaginative” in the role.
Downing Street officials said a big divide had opened up over the Savile slur. Some aides urged Johnson to apologise while others believed the row would provide political cover for the partygate scandal.
Mirza’s exit follows pressure on the prime minister to overhaul his Downing Street operation in response to findings of the Gray report, which noted “failures of leadership and judgment” over parties in Downing Street and Whitehall.
Mirza was regarded as a leading light of the dwindling “City Hall” faction that followed Johnson on a journey from the time he was London mayor, through the Brexit referendum and into Downing Street.
“This will really hurt. The prime minister is very fond of her. He has been very loyal to her. She has been with him right from the start, from City Hall to Number 10. The sudden and unexpected departure will be very painful,” Guto Harri, a former spokesman for Johnson, told the FT.
Meanwhile, the prime minister also on Thursday faced an official rebuke from the head of the UK Statistics Authority over his use of crime data in the House of Commons.
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne and Robert Wright