Boris Johnson resigned on Thursday as leader of Britain’s Conservative party, triggering a race to succeed him as prime minister after a frenzied 48 hours which saw dozens desert his scandal-hit government.
Conservative John Major, who was prime minister from 1990 to 1997, said Johnson’s extended tenure — and the powers that still go with it — was “unwise and may be unsustainable”.
The leadership election will take place in the coming months. The victor will replace Johnson by the party’s annual conference in early October.
But polling suggested most Britons favour his immediate exit, amid claims that Johnson is only hanging on to enjoy a wedding party at his government-funded country retreat.
Johnson’s tumultuous three years in office were defined by Brexit, the Covid pandemic and non-stop controversy about his reputation for mendacity.
– ‘Best job’ –
He said he was “sad… to be giving up the best job in the world”, justifying his fight to stay on to deliver the mandate he won in a Brexit-dominated general election in December 2019.
In the six-minute address, watched by his few remaining Tory allies and his wife Carrie, he promised support for Ukraine “for as long as it takes”.
Johnson reiterated his backing in a call afterwards to President Volodymyr Zelensky, Downing Street said.
Zelensky said he and Ukraine would be sad to see him go, praising his “personal leadership” and “charisma”.
Defence minister Ben Wallace and Rishi Sunak, whose departure as finance minister Tuesday sparked the cabinet exodus, were among the early frontrunners, a YouGov survey of Tory members suggested.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, another potential contender, said Johnson had “made the right decision” as she cut short a trip to Indonesia for a G20 meeting.
“We need calmness and unity now and to keep governing while a new leader is found,” she tweeted.
– Contenders –
Even while eyeing the exit, Johnson sought to steady the ship, making several appointments to replace departed cabinet members.
They included Greg Clark, an arch “remainer” opposed to Britain’s divorce from the European Union, which Johnson had championed.
The inexperienced Shailesh Vara was put in charge of Northern Ireland, with the government locked in battle with Brussels over post-Brexit trading rules for the tense territory.
Convening the new-look cabinet after his resignation speech, Johnson confirmed his lame-duck status by saying “major fiscal decisions should be left for the next prime minister”, according to Downing Street.
As late as Wednesday night, Johnson had been defiantly clinging on to power despite a wave of more than 50 government resignations.
He sacked minister Michael Gove, with a Downing Street source describing Johnson’s former Brexit right-hand-man as a “snake” in the media.
But the departure early Thursday of education minister Michelle Donelan and a plea to quit from finance minister Nadhim Zahawi, who have only in their jobs for two days, tipped the balance.
– ‘Arrogant and delusional’ –
Tory MPs also warned him of a new no-confidence vote.
Johnson triumphed in 2019 with a vow to “get Brexit done” following Britain’s shock referendum decision three years prior. But for many, the populist, convention-defying leader had outstayed his welcome.
The Conservative infighting erupted at a time when millions of Britons are battling the worst slump in living standards since the 1950s, fuelling by rocketing energy prices on back of the war in Ukraine.
Johnson’s popularity had already slumped over a series of lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street, which saw him become the first prime minister to receive a police fine.
“About time, isn’t it? Seriously, I mean have you ever known anyone be so arrogant, ignorant, delusional?” Helen Dewdney, 53, who works in consumer rights, told AFP.
While Johnson oversaw a successful coronavirus vaccine campaign, the former journalist also oversaw one of Europe’s worst death tolls, and nearly died himself from Covid in April 2020.
“Boris Johnson’s legacy is the deaths of nearly 200,000 British people on his watch,” said Lobby Akinnola, from the campaign group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice.
– After-dinner speeches –
“Whilst Johnson will move on to a life of writing newspaper columns and being paid eye-watering amounts to give after-dinner speeches, there will be no moving on for the families like mine that have been ripped apart by his actions,” he said.
Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid quit late Tuesday after Johnson apologised for his February appointment of a senior Conservative MP to a prominent role in parliament.
Chris Pincher resigned as deputy chief whip last week following accusations that he drunkenly groped two men.
Downing Street officials eventually conceded that Johnson had known about other allegations against Pincher back in 2019, and many ministers recoiled at having to defend the appointment.
Tony Travers, director of the think tank LSE London, said the party had once again shown its propensity to turn on unpopular leaders after previously ditching premiers Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May.
“The truth is that the reason the Conservative party is so durable is that it will get rid of its leaders when it thinks they are harming the party,” he told AFP.
“And this allows the party to start again with a new leader and say, ‘look, we’re a completely different enterprise’.”