Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Thursday that he would resign, ending an unprecedented political crisis over his future that has roiled the United Kingdom in recent weeks.
“It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary conservative party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore a new prime minister,” Johnson said outside his office at 10 Downing St. in London.
Johnson said the process to select his successor would begin immediately and a timetable for the change in leadership would be announced next week.
He said it was “painful” for him to leave office but conceded he had failed to push back against an onslaught of opposition from his own party ministers urging him to resign.
“I am sad to be giving up the best job in the world, but thems the breaks,” Johnson said in brief remarks Thursday.
Johnson said he has tried to convince his colleagues over the past few days that it would be “eccentric” to change governments when his government is delivering and his party is just a few points behind in the polls.
But, “the herd instinct is powerful,” he said. “And when the herd moves, it moves. And, my friends, in politics no one is remotely indispensable.”
Johnson’s departure will end his three-year turn as the British leader. It comes after days of turmoil triggered by his evolving explanations of what he knew about a sexual misconduct scandal involving one of his allies. Two of Johnson’s top Cabinet ministers quit earlier this week, followed by more than 30 others who said they could no longer serve under his leadership and who urged him to step down.
Johnson’s hold on power has been weakening for months amid a cost-of-living crisis exacerbated by Britain’s departure from the European Union, known as “Brexit,” which Johnson championed. Even as he rebuffed calls to quit, his leadership was further shaken in recent days by the resignations of his Treasury chief, Rishi Sunak, and his Health Secretary Sajid Javid.
No-confidence vote:Boris Johnson’s brand of colorful politics frays at the edges. But is he out?
Both quit Tuesday saying they could no longer support Johnson because of his handling of ethics scandals, including the case of Chris Pincher, who recently resigned as deputy chief whip amid complaints that he groped two men at a private club.
Their announcements opened the floodgates, and by Thursday, more than 40 ministers had abandoned Johnson.
Nadhim Zahawi resigned just 36 hours after Johnson tapped him to replace Sunak as Treasury chief, while another newly appointed Cabinet minister quit her post.
Zahawi said Johnson knew “the right thing to do” was to “go now.”
What comes next for Britain’s leadership?
British voters elect a party, not a leader. Johnson’s exit will lead to an internal Conservative Party selection process to determine the next prime minister. There are no outright frontrunners to replace Johnson, but early speculation has focused on Sunak as possible favorite.
Johnson vowed to support his successor and predicated another leader would emerge who is “equally committed to taking this country forward through tough times.”
No matter who is chosen, the new prime minister is unlikely to have a major impact on Britain’s “special relationship” with the U.S., its closest ally. The U.S.-U.K. alliance, which encompasses national security, defense, intelligence sharing, trade and close cultural ties, enjoys bipartisan support. Nor is there likely to be any change to Britain’s support for Ukraine in its unprovoked war with Russia. Apart from the U.S., Britain has contributed the most heavy weaponry to Ukraine.
Previous coverage: Boris Johnson’s brand of colorful politics frays at the edges. But is he out?
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‘Desperate’ to cling to power?
A group of Johnson’s most trusted Cabinet ministers visited him at his office in Downing Street on Wednesday, telling him to stand down after losing the trust of his party, according to the Associated Press. But Johnson instead opted to fight for his political career and fired one of the Cabinet officials, Michael Gove, British media reported.
It is rare for a prime minister to cling on to office in the face of this much pressure from his Cabinet colleagues. The Guardian’s front page on Thursday called him “Desperate, deluded.”
“He’s breached the trust that was put in him. He needs to recognize that he no longer has the moral authority to lead. And for him, it’s over,” Scottish National Party leader Ian Blackford told The Associated Press.
Who is Boris Johnson?
Johnson, 58, was known for his knack for wiggling out of tight spots. He remained in power despite allegations that he was too close to party donors, that he protected supporters from bullying and corruption allegations, and that he misled Parliament and was dishonest to the public about government office parties that broke pandemic lockdown rules.
A former London mayor with a quirky persona and an unruly mane – who at times has drawn comparisons, not all of them accurate, to former U.S. President Donald Trump –Johnson rose to power in 2019 following a referendum approved by voters three years earlier that called for the U.K. to leave the European Union.
Johnson, who had been one of the loudest voices behind the so-called Brexit movement, was elevated to prime minister after his predecessor, Theresa May, repeatedly failed to get her Brexit plan through a skeptical Parliament.
Johnson swept into power with a mandate to “get Brexit done.” His victory represented the biggest parliamentary majority in the House of Commons since Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1987.
In his remarks Thursday, Johnson thanked voters for handing him that mandate.
“The reason I have fought so hard in the last few days to continue to deliver that mandate in person was not just because I wanted to do so, but because I felt it was my job, my duty, my obligation to you to continue to do what we promised in 2019,” he said.
But Johnson was seriously wounded by revelations about government employees boozing at No. 10 Downing St. during coronavirus lockdowns. The scandal, which the British media dubbed “Partygate,” helped trigger a no-confidence vote against him in June.
More broadly, public appetite among Conservative voters for Johnson’s brand of right-wing populism and his brazen untruthfulness appears to have waned.
Some lawmakers in Johnson’s Conservative party worried that the leader renowned for his affability could be a liability in upcoming elections. Many were also concerned about Johnson’s ability to govern at a time of increasing economic and social strain. Johnson narrowly survived the non-confidence vote in June, with 41% of lawmakers voting against him.
And his support among Britons continued to erode. A YouGov poll released Wednesday showed that 69% of Britons, including 54% of Conservative voters, thought he should resign. Just 18% said he should remain in office.
Before he announced he would quit, Johnson’s opponents were hoping to change party rules to allow a new no-confidence vote against him. Under current rules, they had to wait a year before mounting another formal leadership challenge.
The latest scandal
The latest scandal began June 30, when Pincher resigned, unleashing a series of reports about past allegations leveled against him and questions about why Johnson promoted him to a senior job enforcing party discipline.
Pincher has denied the groping allegations.
Johnson’s office initially said he wasn’t aware of the previous accusations when he promoted Pincher in February. By Monday, a spokesman said Johnson knew of allegations that were “either resolved or did not progress to a formal complaint.”
That explanation angered Simon McDonald, the most senior civil servant at the U.K. Foreign Office from 2015 to 2020. In a highly unusual move, McDonald went public with claims that Johnson had been briefed about an official investigation into the allegations.
McDonald said in a letter to the parliamentary commissioner for standards that he received complaints about Pincher’s behavior in the summer of 2019, shortly after Pincher became a Foreign Office minister. An investigation upheld the complaint, and Pincher apologized for his actions, McDonald said.
“Mr. Johnson was briefed in person about the initiation and outcome of the investigation,” McDonald wrote.
Hours after McDonald’s comments were published, Johnson’s office changed its story again, saying the prime minister had forgotten that Pincher was the subject of an official complaint.
Johnson told reporters that Pincher should have been fired from the government after a previous 2019 incident. Asked if it was an error to appoint Pincher to the government, Johnson said, “I think it was a mistake, and I apologize for it. In hindsight it was the wrong thing to do.”
Sunak and Javid resigned within minutes of each other on July 5.
The two Cabinet heavyweights were responsible for tackling two of the biggest issues facing Britain — the cost-of-living crisis and COVID-19.
Javid captured the mood of many lawmakers when he said Johnson’s actions threaten to undermine the integrity of the Conservative Party and the British government.
“At some point we have to conclude that enough is enough,” he told fellow lawmakers Wednesday. “I believe that point is now.”
‘Mood music,’ but no major changes
Richard Whitman, a professor of politics and international relations at University of Kent, England, said he doesn’t expect any significant changes to Britain’s domestic or foreign policies as a result of Johnson’s departure because the major issues, from Brexit to national security, are largely “uncontested” in the Conservative Party.
He said there will be different “mood music” for the next few weeks or months as Conservatives select their new leader because “for good, or ill, Johnson’s struck up all sorts of personal relationships, sometimes difficult personal relationships, with international leaders and those will kind of go into a bit of a holding pattern.”
Whitman identified Penny Mordaunt, currently a trade minister in Johnson’s government, as a possible replacement for Johnson.
“She’s got a nice backstory. She’s a reservist in the military, comes from military family,” he said. “She hasn’t screwed up in any of the jobs she’d had, especially when was briefly defense secretary. She’s not been drawn up into to any of the scandals.”
Contributing: The Associated Press