Boris Johnson’s turbulent tenure as Britain’s Prime Minister came to an end Thursday after a historic party revolt over a series of ethics scandals forced him to step down.
It took the resignation of nearly 60 members of his government – almost half the payroll – for Johnson to finally abandon his attempts to cling on to power. Even then, the Prime Minister insisted that he would continue as caretaker leader while the Conservative Party launches the process of choosing a successor.
Some senior figures in his party say even that will be unsustainable, given the dwindling number of people willing to work for him.
Others are already lining up to replace him. Party officials say they will announce the timetable for a leadership election by Monday.
Speaking in front of the famous 10 Downing Street door, the same place where many of his predecessors delivered their own resignation address, Johnson announced that he would be stepping down – without actually saying the words out loud.
“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.
“The process of choosing that new leader should begin now,” he added, saying the time line will be announced next week.
In a sign that he is planning to stay in the office for as long as he can, Johnson announced he had appointed a new cabinet “to serve, as I will, until a new leader is in place.” Appointing new cabinet ministers means that the government can continue to function as he prepares to depart.
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 proved his political downfall.
“In the last few days, I’ve tried to persuade my colleagues that it would be eccentric to change governments when we’re delivering so much… and when the economic scene is so difficult domestically and internationally,” Johnson said.
“I regret not to have been successful in those arguments, and of course, it’s painful, not to be able to see through so many ideas and projects myself,” he said, adding that he’s proud of “getting Brexit done” and “leading the West in standing up to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.”
Johnson went on to address voters directly, expressing sadness at stepping down after nearly three years.
“To you, the British public: I know that there will be many people who are relieved and, perhaps, quite a few will also be disappointed,” he said. “And I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world, but them’s the breaks.”
Johnson has in recent months been engulfed in a series of scandals that forced even his most stalwart supporters to abandon him. The latest was Downing Street’s botched handling of the resignation by Johnson’s former deputy chief whip, Chris Pincher, who was accused of groping two men last week.
Johnson initially attempted to ride out the crisis – despite an unprecedented flight of middle-ranking ministers from the government, a battering at Prime Minister’s Questions and a bruising appearance before a committee of senior lawmakers in Parliament. On Wednesday, he still insisted he wasn’t going to resign.
He finally gave in Thursday after some of his most loyal allies told him that the game was up.
UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Johnson had made the “right decision” to resign. “We need calmness and unity now and to keep governing while a new leader is found,” she added.
Greg Clark, newly appointed UK Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, said that he had a “duty to ensure that the country has a functioning government.”
The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, said it was “good news for the country” that Johnson had decided to resign, adding that “it should have happened long ago.”
“He was always unfit for office. He has been responsible for lies, scandal and fraud on an industrial scale,” said Starmer on Twitter.
The opposition leader also had scathing words for the Conservatives. “They have been in power for 12 years. The damage they have done is profound. Twelve years of economic stagnation. Twelve years of declining public services. Twelve years of empty promises,” Starmer said.
“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 nationwide vote.
But some said Johnson should leave office more quickly.
“We now need a new Leader as soon as practicable,” Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said on Twitter. “Someone who can rebuild trust, heal the country, and set out a new, sensible and consistent economic approach to help families,” he added.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also called for the leadership question to be settled.
“There will be a widespread sense of relief that the chaos of the last few days (indeed months) will come to an end, though notion of Boris Johnson staying on as PM until autumn seems far from ideal, and surely not sustainable?” Sturgeon said in a series of tweets.
Conservative MP Steve Baker told CNN that the party needs “to move swiftly to a leadership contest.”
Baker said Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab should be caretaker prime minister, but that Johnson could also continue in office. Raab has deputized for Johnson in the past: When the PM was in intensive care with Covid-19 in April 2020 and then again briefly last month when Johnson underwent “routine” operation and was put under general anesthetic.
Raab said he would not stand as next Conservative party leader, according to Britain’s PA news agency, which would make him a candidate for a caretaker PM if Johnson was to step down early.
“I am absolutely determined that we should not prolong this crisis. If it’s agreed within government that Boris Johnson should continue as caretaker, then that’s fine with me,” Baker told CNN. “Because we need to just end the crisis, get into a leadership contest, and start fresh in September.”
Former British Prime Minister John Major said it would be “unwise and may be unsustainable” for Johnson to remain in the office of prime minister for long while a new Conservative leader is chosen. He too suggested Raab could serve as the acting prime minister.
Hours after Johnson’s announcement, Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat launched his campaign for the top job with an editorial in UK newspaper the Telegraph.
Barrage of criticism
Johnson’s departure will mark a remarkable downfall for a prime minister who was once seen as having political superpowers, with an appeal that transcended traditional party lines.
He won a landslide victory in December 2019 on the promise of delivering a Brexit deal and leading the UK to a bright future outside the European Union. But his premiership unraveled in the aftermath 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-breaking parties thrown in his Downing Street offices for which he and others were fined.
Numerous other scandals have also hit his standing in the polls. These include accusations of using donor money inappropriately to pay for a refurbishment of his Downing Street home and ordering MPs to vote in such a way that would protect a colleague who had breached lobbying rules.
Last month, he survived a confidence vote among members of his own party, but the final count of his lawmakers who rebelled against him was higher than his supporters expected: 41% of his own parliamentary party refused to back him.
He suffered a further blow late last month when his party lost two parliamentary by-elections in a single 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.
CNN’s Lauren Kent and Sugam Pokharel contributed to this report.