Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Thursday that he would resign, ending an unprecedented political crisis that has roiled the United Kingdom.
“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 No. 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 them’s the breaks,” Johnson said Thursday.
Johnson said he tried to convince his colleagues over the past few days that it would be “eccentric” to change governments when his administration is delivering and his party is just a few points behind in the polls.
“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 Britain’s leader. Days of turmoil were 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 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 weakened 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 by the resignations of treasury chief Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid.
No-confidence vote: Boris Johnson’s brand of colorful politics frays at the edges.
Both quit Tuesday, saying they could no longer support Johnson because of his handling of ethics scandals, including the case of Chris Pincher, who 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 36 hours after Johnson tapped him to replace Sunak as treasury chief, and 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 front-runners to replace Johnson, though Sunak could be a favorite.
Johnson vowed to support his successor, who he predicted would be “equally committed to taking this country forward through tough times.”
The new prime minister is unlikely to have a major impact on Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States, 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 war with Russia. Second to the United States, Britain has contributed the most heavy weaponry to Ukraine.
‘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 he lost the trust of his party, according to The Associated Press. Johnson instead fought 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 to office in the face of so much pressure from his Cabinet colleagues. The Guardian’s front page on Thursday called Johnson “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, had a 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 accusations 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 drew comparisons, not all of them accurate, to former President Donald Trump – Johnson rose to power in 2019 after a referendum approved by voters three years earlier that called for the U.K. to leave the European Union.
Johnson, 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.
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.
Johnson was 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.
Some lawmakers in Johnson’s Conservative Party worried that the leader renowned for his affability could be a liability in elections. Many were concerned about Johnson’s ability to govern at a time of increasing economic and social strain. Johnson narrowly survived the no-confidence vote in June, when 41% of lawmakers voted against him.
His support among Britons eroded. A YouGov poll released Wednesday showed that 69% of Britons, including 54% of Conservative voters, said he should resign. Just 18% said he should remain in office.
Before he announced he would quit, Johnson’s opponents hoped 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 questions about why Johnson promoted him to a senior job enforcing party discipline.
Pincher denied the groping allegations, though there were other accusations of sexual misconduct before the incident at the club in June.
Johnson’s office initially said he wasn’t aware of the 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 said the prime minister had forgotten that Pincher was the subject of an official complaint.
Johnson said Pincher should have been fired from the government after an incident in 2019. He said of Pincher’s appointment, “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 Tuesday.
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 threatened 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, 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 she was briefly defense secretary. She’s not been drawn up into any of the scandals.”
Contributing: The Associated Press