After Brexit, Boris Johnson exits the race to be UK prime minister

The MP had been seen as the chief candidate from the pro-Brexit camp to succeed David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party.
Vote Leave campaign leader Boris Johnson waves as he finishes delivering his speech in London on June 30, 2016. Toby Melville/Reuters
Vote Leave campaign leader Boris Johnson waves as he finishes delivering his speech in London on June 30, 2016. Toby Melville/Reuters

LONDON // He led the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union. Now Boris Johnson — a politician as underestimated as he was derided — is making his own exit from the contest to choose the next leader of his party and his country.

In a surprise announcement on Thursday, Mr Johnson ruled himself out of the running, saying he would support the next Conservative leader but that it would not be him.

With the media gathered in central London for what they expected to be the launch of his leadership bid, the former London mayor struck an upbeat tone, saying the task of the new prime minister was lead a more outward-looking nation. Then came the shocker.

“I must tell you, my friends, you who have waited faithfully for the punchline of this speech, that having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in parliament I have concluded that person cannot be me,” he said.

“My role will be to give every possible support to the next Conservative administration to make sure that we properly fulfil the mandate of the people that was delivered at the referendum, and to champion the agenda I believe in — to stick up for the forgotten people in this country.”

Mr Johnson, 52, one of the most popular and best-known political figures in British politics, was the favourite to succeed David Cameron, who resigned last Friday after he failed to keep Britain in the EU. But it was not a political opponent who dealt the fatal blow to Mr Johnson’s leadership ambitions, but one from his own side, justice secretary and prominent “leaver” Michael Gove, who announced his own bid for the top job.

In his own surprise announcement, Mr Gove said he had wanted to build a team behind Boris Johnson but had come to realise that Boris was — to put it bluntly — not up to the task.

“I wanted to help build a team behind Boris Johnson so that a politician who argued for leaving the European Union could lead us to a better future,” said Mr Gove. “But I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.”

He is now the front-runner to be Conservative leader and prime minister along with home secretary, Theresa May, a “remain” supporter, who also launched her leadership campaign on Thursday.

Less than 12 hours earlier, friends of both Mr Gove and Mr Johnson were insisting the pair were “rock solid.” But behind that show of unity were real concerns about Mr Johnson’s gravitas — or lack of it. Colleagues had been unable to contact him at key moments over last week after the Brexit result. They spoke of his lack of “grip”, which only consolidated a widely-held view that Mr Johnson was too independent-minded and not to be trusted to keep his promises. There were concerns about Mr Johnson’s “chaotic” style.

On Wednesday Mr Gove’s wife, the newspaper columnist Sarah Vine, spelt out the dangers of backing Boris in an email to her husband which was subsequently leaked.

“You MUST have SPECIFIC assurances from Boris OTHERWISE you cannot guarantee your support,” wrote Ms Vine. She ended with, “Do not concede any ground. Be your stubborn best.”

By Thursday morning it became clear that Mr Johnson could not command enough support from his own party. His fellow Leave campaigner, the justice minister Dominic Raab, who switched his backing from Mr Johnson to Mr Gove, told the Daily Politics television show, “ Putting together a really strong unifying team was an absolute condition. When that fell away, I think that Michael felt things had changed. Boris was cavalier with assurances he made. We’re picking a prime minister here to lead the country, not a school prefect.”

As well as Mr Gove and Mrs May, three other candidates- Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom and Stephen Crabb — are in the running to become prime minister.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: June 30, 2016 04:00 AM

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