UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday quit as Conservative party leader, after three tumultuous years in charge marked by Brexit, the pandemic and mounting scandals, ending an unprecedented political crisis.
Standing at a podium in front of 10 Downing Street’s iconic front door, the prime minister said he would stay in his role until a successor was chosen.
“It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader of that party and so a new prime minister,” Johnson said.
“No one is remotely indispensable,” he said. “Our brilliant and Darwinian system will produce another leader.”
Johnson listed what he saw as his successes — singling out Brexit and British support for Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion.
“The reason I have fought so hard over 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,” he said in the address to the British public.
“I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world,” he said. “But them’s the breaks.”
Johnson had rebuffed calls to step down in the wake of multiple scandals, but gave in after more than 50 ministers of various ranks and their MP aides quit his government and told him to go.
Johnson’s resignation triggers a leadership race within his party. The winner of that contest will assume the role of prime minister.
The Conservatives plan for a new prime minister to be in place for the party conference, set to be held in October.
The announcement has triggered speculation about who will take over, with defense minister Ben Wallace and Rishi Sunak, whose departure as finance minister on Tuesday helped spark the exodus, among the early frontrunners, according to a YouGov survey of Conservative party members.
Tom Tugendhat and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are also thought to be in the running. Truss cut short her ministerial trip to Indonesia and announced she would be flying back to the UK on Thursday.
Party members will decide the new leader once Conservative MPs have whittled down the contenders to a final two.
Johnson has said he will remain in office until that time, but some Conservatives said he should leave 10 Downing Street immediately to end the chaos engulfing the government.
According to the Daily Mail, one name being touted as a possible caretaker prime minister by sources was Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.
George Freeman, who resigned from his position as science minister earlier on Thursday, tweeted that he did not believe Johnson should remain as prime minister and that a caretaker leader should be appointed.
“Now [Johnson] has finally done the decent thing he needs to hand in the seals of office, apologize to Her Majesty [Queen Elizabeth II], allow her to appoint a caretaker under whom Ministers can serve, so the Conservative Party can choose a new leader properly,” Freeman tweeted.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News that the party “need[s] a new leader as soon as practicable.”
Meanwhile, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also tweeted that she believes it’s “not sustainable” for Johnson to remain prime minister until the autumn.
Even while eyeing the exit, Johnson on Thursday sought to steady the ship with several appointments to replace the departed cabinet members. They included Greg Clark, an arch “remainer” opposed to Brexit.
The first reports of Johnson’s resignation emerged amid the continued deluge of resignations from his government and after British Treasury chief Nadhim Zahawi called on him to resign, just 36 hours after Johnson put him in the job.
Zahawi said Johnson knew “the right thing to do” was to “go now.”
Zahawi was appointed late Tuesday to replace Sunak, who resigned saying he could no longer support Johnson after a series of ethics scandals.
Education Secretary Michelle Donelan, who was also appointed on Tuesday following the resignation of her predecessor, announced her resignation Thursday morning.
Johnson, 58, is 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.
But recent disclosures that Johnson knew about sexual misconduct allegations against Chris Pincher, a Conservative lawmaker, before he promoted the man to a senior position pushed the prime minister to the brink.
Last week, Pincher resigned as deputy chief whip after complaints he groped two men at a private club. That triggered a series of reports about past allegations leveled against Pincher — and shifting explanations from the government about what Johnson knew when he tapped him for a senior job enforcing party discipline.
The shock resignations of finance chief Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid late Tuesday after Johnson apologized for appointing Pincher set off a chain of others.
Days of shifting explanations had followed Pincher’s resignation, with Downing Street at first denying Johnson knew of the prior allegations — a defense that collapsed after a former top civil servant said he was told in 2019 about another incident.
Tory critics said the Pincher affair had tipped many over the edge, angry at having to defend what they saw as more lies by Johnson.
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.”