Boris Johnson’s turbulent tenure as British Prime Minister came to an end on Thursday after a historic party uprising over a string of ethics scandals forced him to resign.
It took the resignation of nearly 60 members of his government — nearly half the wage bill — for Johnson to finally give up his efforts to stay in power. Even then, the prime minister insisted that he continue as interim leader while the Conservative Party launches the process of choosing a successor.
Some leading figures in his party say even that will be untenable given the dwindling number of people willing to work for him.
Others are already queuing up to replace him. Party officials say they will announce the timetable for a leadership election by Monday at the latest.
Speaking in front of the famous 10 Downing Street door, the same place where many of his predecessors delivered their own resignation speech, Johnson announced that he would be stepping down — without actually saying the words out loud.
“It is now clearly the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party to have a new leader of that party and thus a new prime minister,” Johnson said.
“The process of choosing that new leader should begin now,” he added, saying the timeline will be announced next week.
In a sign that he intends to remain in office as long as possible, Johnson announced that he had appointed a new cabinet “to serve, as I will, until there is a new leader.” By appointing new ministers, the government can continue to function as it prepares for his departure.
Johnson spoke of his attempts to stay on as leader and how “painful” it is for him to step down, but made no mention of the scandals that have proven his political downfall.
“Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to convince my colleagues that it would be eccentric to change governments when we’re delivering so much… and when the economic situation at home and abroad is so difficult,” Johnson said.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been successful in those arguments, and of course it’s painful not being able to see through so many ideas and projects on my own,” he said, adding that he’s proud to “make Brexit happen” and “leading the West to resist Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.”
Addressing voters directly, Johnson expressed his sadness at stepping down after nearly three years.
“To you, the British public: I know there will be a lot of people who will be relieved and maybe a lot of disappointment too,” he said. “And I want you to know how sad I am to give up the best job in the world, but those are the breaks.”
Johnson has been engulfed in a string of scandals in recent months that have forced even his most staunch supporters to abandon him. The latest news was Downing Street’s botched handling of the firing by Johnson’s former head whip deputy Chris Pincher, who was charged last week with groping two men.
Johnson initially tried to contain the crisis — despite an unprecedented flight of middle-class ministers from the government, a beating to the prime minister’s questions and a bruised appearance before a committee of senior lawmakers in parliament. On Wednesday, he insisted that he would not resign.
But Johnson finally relented on Thursday after some of his most loyal allies told him the game was over.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Johnson had made the “right decision” to resign. “We need calm and unity now and continue to rule as a new leader is found,” she added.
Greg Clark, the newly appointed UK Secretary of State for Levelling, Housing and Communities, said he had a “duty to ensure the country has a functioning government”.
Opposition Labor leader Keir Starmer said it was “good news for the country” that Johnson had decided to resign, adding that “it should have been done a long time ago”.
“He was always unfit for the office. He has been responsible for industrial-scale lies, scandal and fraud,” Starmer said on Twitter.
The opposition leader also had scathing words for the conservatives. “They have been in power for twelve years. The damage they have done is enormous. Twelve years of economic stagnation. Twelve years of declining public services. Twelve years of empty promises,” said Starmer.
“Enough is enough. We don’t need to change the Tory at the top – we need a proper change of government. We need a fresh start for Britain.”
Conventionally, when a conservative leader resigns, he or she gives the party time to hold a thorough leadership contest, in which conservative lawmakers and then party members vote across the country.
But some said Johnson should leave office sooner.
“We now need a new leader as soon as possible,” Minister of Affairs and Energy Kwasi Kwarteng said on Twitter. “Someone who can restore confidence, heal the country and devise a new, sensible and consistent economic approach to help families,” he added.
Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon also called for the leadership issue to be resolved.
“There will be a widespread sense of relief that the chaos of the last few days (months indeed) is coming to an end, although the idea of Boris Johnson staying on as prime minister until the fall seems far from ideal and certainly untenable?” said Sturgeon in a series of tweets.
Conservative MP Steve Baker told CNN the party “needs to get to a leadership contest soon”.
Baker said Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab should become interim Prime Minister, but Johnson could also remain in office. Raab has replaced Johnson in the past: when the prime minister was in intensive care with Covid-19 in April 2020 and again briefly last month when Johnson underwent “routine” surgery and was put under general anaesthetic.
“I am absolutely determined that we should not prolong this crisis. If there’s an agreement within the government that Boris Johnson should remain as a janitor, I’m fine with that,” Baker told CNN. “Because we just need to end the crisis, enter a leadership contest and start over in September.”
Former British Prime Minister John Major said it would be “unwise and potentially untenable” for Johnson to remain in office for a long time while a new Conservative leader is elected.
Johnson’s departure will spell a remarkable demise for a prime minister once viewed as political superpowers, with appeals that transcend traditional party lines.
He took a landslide victory in December 2019 on the pledge to deliver a Brexit deal and lead the UK into a bright future outside the European Union. But his premiership unraveled in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In recent months, the Prime Minister has faced a barrage of criticism from all sides over his conduct and that of some members of his government, including illegal, Covid-19 lockdown parties thrown into his Downing Street offices for which he and others were fined .
Numerous other scandals have also tarnished his position in the polls. These include allegations of improperly using donor money to pay for the renovation of his Downing Street home and ordering MPs to vote in a way that would protect a colleague who had broken lobbying rules.
Last month he survived a confidence vote among members of his own party, but the final count of his lawmakers revolting against him was higher than his supporters had expected: 41% of his own parliamentary party refused to support him.
He was dealt another blow late last month when his party lost two parliamentary by-elections in one night, raising new questions about his leadership.
His reputation was also damaged by the resignation of his second ethics adviser in less than two years.