Donelan and Freeman in final flood of departures as Johnson quits

Newly appointed education secretary follows science minister out the door

July 7, 2022
Michelle Donelan speaks at THE Campus Live 2021
Source: Phillip Waterman
Michelle Donelan speaks at THE Campus Live 2021

Michelle Donelan resigned as education secretary barely 36 hours after being promoted to the post, following science minister George Freeman out of the Westminster government in a final flood of departures that forced Boris Johnson to announce that he would step down as prime minister.

Ms Donelan had been appointed to the post only on Tuesday evening, but by Wednesday afternoon she was among a delegation of Cabinet ministers who urged Mr Johnson to step down. Her resignation left the Department for Education without any ministers in the House of Commons, following the departures of skills minister Alex Burghart, school standards minister Robin Walker and children’s minister Will Quince.

In her resignation letter, Ms Donelan said she had “pleaded” with Mr Johnson “to do the right thing and resign for the sake of our country and our party, both are more important than any one person”.

“I see no way that you can continue in post, but without a formal mechanism to remove you it seems that the only way that this is possible is for those of us who remain in Cabinet to force your hand,” she told Mr Johnson.

“You have put us an impossible situation. I am deeply saddened that it has come to this, but as someone who values integrity above all else, I have no choice.”

Ms Donelan, who previously served as higher education minister, added that she was “very worried about the prospect of [there being] no ministers in the department as we approach [school exam] results day – the impact on students is real”.

Little over an hour before, Mr Freeman had used his resignation letter to warn that the UK’s “constitutional crisis” was “undermining” the UK’s post-Brexit attempts to negotiate association to European Union funding schemes such as Horizon Europe.

Mr Freeman wrote that he had tried to give Mr Johnson the benefit of the doubt over the “Partygate” scandal of lockdown-breaking gatherings in Downing Street.

“But I’m afraid the culmination of your lack of transparency and candour with Parliament (and willingness to ask your ministers to mislead Parliament), your removal of key pillars of the ministerial code, your handling of your appointment of a deputy chief whip who it turns out you knew had a history of sexual abuse allegations, is too much. This is seriously damaging public trust and respect for government, democracy and the law, and this great party’s long tradition as the party of standards, character, conduct, integrity and duty to office and country before partisan self-interest,” Mr Freeman wrote.

“Your leadership, the chaos in No 10, breakdown of Cabinet collective responsibility and collapse of public confidence in government represents a constitutional crisis. It is also now seriously undermining our authority in key negotiations on the world stage at a time of urgent international crises.”

Mr Freeman said this was the case “nowhere more than” in science, referencing the negotiations on Horizon Europe, held up by the impasse over the Northern Ireland protocol, as well as the Copernicus Earth observation programme and the Euratom nuclear research scheme.

Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme shortly after resigning, Mr Freeman said: “I am trying to negotiate a major international agreement in science and technology, and you just cannot do that with this chaos.”

The BBC reported that Mr Johnson would announce his departure as Conservative leader and stay in post as prime minister until the autumn, allowing for a new leader to be in place in time for the Tory party conference in October.

But Mr Freeman said on Twitter that the prime minister should step down today and allow the appointment of a caretaker administration, to get “ministers back at their desks”.

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