Boris Johnson resigns: Search begins for new UK prime minister

Rebellion from colleagues was too much for embattled Conservative leader

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Britain was searching for a new prime minister on Thursday after Boris Johnson resigned as leader of the Conservative Party.

He made a resignation statement outside 10 Downing Street after support from his ministerial team and MPs collapsed, saying it was “clearly the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader”.

Mr Johnson intends to remain in Number 10 until his successor is elected, which could take several months, but he faces resistance to that plan from opposition parties, and from within his own party.

In his speech, the prime minister said he had tried to persuade colleagues that it would be eccentric to change governments when its popularity was only a few points behind in the opinion polls. Mr Johnson said the brilliant and Darwinian system would soon produce another Conservative leader.

Noting that “the herd” had moved against him, Mr Johnson said his departure had become inevitable and that no one in politics was indispensable. “I want people to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world but them’s the breaks,” he said.

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When the herd moves it moves. My friends in politics, no one is remotely indispensable.
Boris Johnson

Mr Johnson said he was “immensely proud of the achievements of this government”, from getting Brexit done to getting the UK through the pandemic, and leading the West in standing up to Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.

“Let me say now to the people of Ukraine that I know that we in the UK will continue to back your fight for freedom for as long as it takes,” he added.

In a nod to his domestic agenda, the prime minister for 1,079 days said he hoped the process of increasing opportunity in the UK would continue. “We’ve been pushing forward a vast programme of investment in infrastructure and skills and technology, the biggest in a century,” he said. “Because if I have one insight into human beings it is that genius and talent and enthusiasm, imagination are evenly distributed throughout the population but opportunity is not. And that’s why we must keep levelling up, keep unleashing the potential of every part of the United Kingdom.”

Who would replace Boris Johnson?

Clockwise from top left: Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Ben Wallace, Nadhim Zahawi, Tom Tugendhat, and Jeremy Hunt. PA

There are now plenty of contenders lining up for the crown of Conservative leader, and ultimately the next prime minister. Mr Johnson said the process of choosing the new leader should begin right away and a timetable would be announced next week. The freshly composed cabinet he appointed on Thursday would serve under until the new leader was in place.

Among the most likely to be candidates are Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Nadhim Zahawi, Ben Wallace, Tom Tugendhat and Jeremy Hunt. Suella Braverman has already said she would stand in a leadership contest.

Mr Johnson's announcement brought to an end three tumultuous years in office defined by Brexit, the Covid pandemic and non-stop controversy. He was dogged by negative headlines in the past nine months, including receiving a police fine for breaching his own Covid rules. However, his handling of a sexual harassment scandal involving one of his own MPs proved the final straw.

Dozens of ministers quit his government over 48 hours of frenzied political drama, ranging from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the trade envoy to Angola. Mr Johnson had clung to power for two days, defiantly telling MPs on Wednesday that he had a “colossal mandate” from voters and intended to get on with the business of government.

But he was forced to concede defeat on Thursday morning after one of his closest allies, newly appointed Treasury chief Nadhim Zahawi, publicly told him to resign for the good of the country.

Former British prime minister John Major said Mr Johnson should not remain in Downing Street until a successor is found “for the overall wellbeing of the country”.

Mr Major, a Conservative prime minister from 1990 to 1997, said deputy PM Dominic Raab could take over until a new leader is found, or the party could change the selection rules to speed up the process.

“The proposal for the prime minister to remain in office — for up to three months — having lost the support of his cabinet, his government and his parliamentary party, is unwise, and may be unsustainable,” he said in a public letter.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it was “good news” that he was resigning but “we don’t need to change the Tory at the top — we need a proper change of government”.

He threatened to use a House of Commons vote of no confidence procedure to attempt to oust the prime minister unless he handed over the reins to another leader.

The UK is set for its fourth prime minister in a little more than six years — the fastest turnover in occupants of 10 Downing Street for nearly a century.

Since the summer of 2016, the country has seen the last weeks of David Cameron’s premiership, the start and end of Theresa May’s time as PM, and now the entirety of Boris Johnson’s spell in the top job, with another prime minister due in place by the autumn.

Mr Johnson's handling of Brexit, and in particular how it affected the trade border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland proved controversial. Ireland's foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney said the Irish government “stands ready” to work with a new British prime minister, “protecting our shared achievements in the peace process and our shared responsibility under international law on Brexit”. Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said that Boris Johnson’s interactions with Ireland have been “wholly negative”, saying he will “not be missed”.

Michel Barnier, who served as the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator when the UK and Brussels agreed the withdrawal agreement and struck a post-withdrawal treaty, said he hoped “the departure of Boris Johnson opens a new page in relations” between the 27-member bloc and the UK.

“May it be more constructive, more respectful of commitments made, in particular regarding peace and stability in [Northern Ireland], and more friendly with partners in [the EU].“Because there’s so much more to be done together,” he added.

Ukraine's presidency thanked Johnson for his support in “the hardest times”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday telephoned Mr Johnson to express his "sadness" over the British leader's impending departure as prime minister.

"We all welcome this news with sadness. Not only me, but also all of Ukrainian society which sympathises with you a lot," the presidency quoted Mr Zelenskyy as saying, reiterating how grateful Ukrainians were for the British prime minister's support since the Russian invasion.

Mr Johnson has been seen as one of Ukraine's most vocal and fervent supporters in the West.

"We don't doubt that Great Britain's support will continue, but your personal leadership and your charisma made it special," said Mr Zelenskyy.

However, Russia took a different view. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “He doesn't like us, we don't like him either.”

Maria Zakharova, Russian foreign ministry spokesman, said: “Boris Johnson was hit by a boomerang launched by himself … His comrades-in-arms turned him in.”

How the drama unfolded — days of political drama

Mr Johnson decided to leave Downing Street after he haemorrhaged support across the Tory ranks. He was hit by a torrent of resignations from his government in little more than 24 hours.

Officials said Mr Johnson had spoken to the Tory 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady on Thursday and agreed to stand down.

He had been defiant on Wednesday night, but the resignations continued, with at least 10 MPs announcing their departure on Thursday morning, taking the total beyond 50.

Among that list were cabinet members Brandon Lewis and Simon Hart, and Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid who had started the process on Tuesday evening.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace added his name to the clamour for his exit, warning that national security demands made it impossible for him to join the flood of resignations. “A number of us have an obligation to keep this country safe, no matter who is PM. The Party has a mechanism to change leaders and that is the mechanism which I advise colleagues to use,” he said. “In the meantime, the public would not forgive us if we left these Offices of State empty.”

Nadhim Zahawi, who was appointed as chancellor on Tuesday evening, told Boris Johnson to “do the right thing and go now”.

In a letter on Treasury note paper, Mr Zahawi said he was heart-broken by the leader's failure to step down after more than 50 resignations from the government. “Prime Minister: this is not sustainable and it will only get worse: for you, for the Conservative Party and most importantly of all the country,” he said. “You must do the right thing and go now.”

And the newly-appointed Education Secretary Michelle Donelan also resigned, after just 36 hours in the post, telling Mr Johnson she could see “no way” he could stay in the post.

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Boris Johnson's controversial career — in pictures

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Delegation to Downing Street

Mr Johnson met ministers in Number 10 on Wednesday, where he was told that he has lost the confidence of the Conservative Party and should not continue in office ― but he refused to listen and instead insisted he would battle on.

Home Secretary Priti Patel, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and Welsh Secretary Simon Hart were among the cabinet ministers to knock on his door.

Mr Hart then resigned, swiftly followed by an announcement from Attorney General Suella Braverman that she would stand in a leadership contest and called on Mr Johnson to leave.

It capped a day of drama which meant Mr Johnson had suffered more resignations than any British prime minister in history.

Despite this he began a new reshuffle, sacking Michael Gove, secretary of state for levelling up.

Mr Gove, who, like Mr Johnson is a former newspaper columnist, teamed up with the prime minister to campaign for Brexit in the referendum.

He was sacked by Theresa May when she took power after the shock result but returned to the front line in the Johnson team in 2019.

The BBC reported a Downing Street source as saying the sacking of Mr Gove was a purge of those who were disloyal.

“You cannot have a snake who is not with you on any of the big arguments who then gleefully briefs the press that he has called for the leader to go,” the official was quoted as saying.

“You cannot operate like that.”

The long list of resignations

Northern Ireland minister quits cabinet

The Northern Ireland secretary, who took over the role in early 2020, told Mr Johnson that the government had taken “huge strides to level up the economy of Northern Ireland and not shied away from taking other difficult decisions; confronting the practical issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol, advocating for the reproductive rights of women and championing the benefits of integrated education for all”.

Mr Lewis continued: “A decision to leave government is never taken lightly, particularly at such a critical time for Northern Ireland. I have taken a lot of time to consider this decision, having outlined my position to you at length last night.”

Mr Lewis told the prime minister that in recent months, the Conservative Party has been “relentlessly on the defensive, consumed by introspection and infighting”.

“A divided party cannot win elections. It cannot deliver for those who trusted us with their votes for the first time in 2019.”

Other MPs to announce on Thursday that they had had enough were Helen Whateley, Damian Hinds, George Freeman, Chris Philp and James Cartlidge.

How did it come to this?

The latest scandal, which led to Mr Johnson's demise, related to his handling of the Chris Pincher affair, an MP accused of groping men while drunk. Mr Pincher stood down last week from his position as a whip, a position intended to ensure the good behaviour of MPs. Downing Street was accused of failing to give straight answers when asked what Mr Johnson knew about previous accusations against Mr Pincher.

Nick Donaldson / The National

Defiant to the last

Throughout Wednesday, Mr Johnson defended his position in parliament after losing dozens more colleagues, including Mr Javid and Mr Sunak.

In a particularly brutal swipe, Mr Javid accused Mr Johnson of sending ministers out to publicly lie for him.

“I also believe a team is as good as its team captain and a captain is as good as his or her team,” he told the House of Commons.

“It’s not fair on ministerial colleagues to go out every morning defending lines that don’t stand up and don’t hold up.”

Mr Javid suggested he had been disturbed by what was going in Number 10 in recent months.

“Effective governance inevitably requires loyalty and collective responsibility, of course it does, and I am instinctively a team player and I have completely focused on governing effectively over the last year,” he said.

“But treading the tightrope between loyalty and integrity has become impossible in recent months.”

Updated: July 08, 2022, 6:05 AM
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