When a little-known member of Britain’s Parliament got drunk at an exclusive club last week and then staggered out into a warm London night, few would have thought that he would throw the government into chaos and threaten Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership.
Alcohol and late nights are hardly strangers in British politics, so Chris Pincher’s actions could easily have gone unnoticed.
But a week later, an expanding scandal has put into stark relief three fundamental issues facing Mr. Johnson’s government: competence, confidence and, above all, trust.
On Tuesday, the fallout mounted as Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the Exchequer, and Sajid Javid, the health secretary, both quit the government in letters to Mr. Johnson that only thinly disguised their loss of faith in his leadership.
Mr. Pincher, 52, the member of Parliament for Tamworth in the Midlands, had almost no national profile. But within British politics he had cultivated a reputation as a fierce loyalist to Mr. Johnson and an expert in the art of cajoling other Conservative Party lawmakers to vote through government business. For those attributes, Mr. Johnson made him a junior minister in 2019, and then, this February, a deputy whip, charged with marshaling government business.
In this latter task, his colleagues said, he was unusually efficient, helping organize a below-the-radar operation dubbed, at least by some, “Operation Save Big Dog” that enabled Mr. Johnson to survive last month, albeit narrowly, a vote of confidence by his colleagues in Parliament.
Yet there was a problem. Mr. Pincher had been in the whip’s office before, but in 2017, he was forced to quit after accusations that he had made an unwanted pass at a Conservative activist, a former professional rower named Alex Story. A complaint of inappropriate behavior was also made against Mr. Pincher in 2019 when he worked in the Foreign Office.
It was Mr. Johnson’s decision to bring him back into government that is at the root of the present crisis.
Last Wednesday, Mr. Pincher attended an event for the Conservative Friends of Cyprus at the Carlton Club in one of London’s most exclusive neighborhoods, not far from Buckingham Palace. He has been accused of groping two men while he was there. Witnesses said that he was so drunk that he had to be put into a taxi.
The next day, contrite, he wrote a letter on House of Commons notepaper to Mr. Johnson, offering his resignation as deputy whip. “Last night I drank far too much,” he said. “I’ve embarrassed myself and other people which is the last thing I want to do and for that I apologize to you and to those concerned.”
That was not the end. The government insisted for days that Mr. Johnson did not know of any previous accusations, but then it emerged that he knew of the 2019 complaint, yet appointed Mr. Pincher deputy whip. The former top civil servant in the Foreign Office, Simon McDonald, released a public letter on Tuesday accusing Downing Street of distorting the facts.
Opposition lawmakers demanded that Mr. Pincher resign from Parliament. Government ministers, sent to defend Mr. Johnson’s handling of the matter in radio and television interviews, appeared uncomfortable.
Through it all, Mr. Pincher has remained silent, avoiding the spotlight and denying substantive accusations against him.