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Why Boris Johnson is resigning and how we got to this point

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ahead of a June 30 meeting of the North Atlantic Council during the NATO summit in Madrid. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced his resignation, saying that he is “sad” to be “giving up the best job in the world,” in a speech to the nation Thursday outside No. 10 Downing Street, his official residence.

It comes after more than 50 members of his own government resigned in the past 48 hours in open revolt against his leadership. Ministers and aides, including several members of his Cabinet, said they no longer had faith in his leadership after a series of scandals, the latest involving an ally accused of sexual misconduct.

While resigning as leader of the Conservative Party, Johnson insisted he would continue to serve as prime minister until his successor is chosen — despite criticism from many lawmakers from his own party who insisted he should step down now.

Boris Johnson resigns after party revolt, will stay on until new leader

Johnson rose to power on a promise to “get Brexit done.” He secured a huge parliamentary majority for his Conservative Party in a 2019 general election, which he had argued this week gave him a public mandate to stay on. But his popularity with the British public took serious dents through a string of scandals, from police fines over coronavirus lock down parties to the cost of decorating his official home. On Thursday he woke up to another wave of resignations by government officials and party members declaring that the embattled prime minister must step down immediately.

“I want to thank you the British public for the immense privilege you have given me,” Johnson said, surrounded by his family, staff and supporters. He added the timetable for a leadership contest to replace him would be announced next week.

So, how did he get here? Here’s what you need to know.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his resignation on July 7, after more than 50 members of his own government resigned in 48 hours. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Adam Taylor/The Washington Post)

Who are Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid — and why do their resignations matter?

Senior cabinet ministers Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid resigned Tuesday within minutes of each other, expressing a lack of confidence in Johnson’s leadership — sparking the start of the cabinet revolt.

They appeared to have been tipped over the edge by the latest scandal engulfing Johnson and his government — involving allegations that the prime minister promoted Chris Pincher, a political ally he knew had been accused of misconduct, to a key government position and then mischaracterized what he knew about it.

Live updates: Boris Johnson resigns

Having a senior cabinet member resign is a big deal in British politics, and Sunak and Javid were in particularly important positions. Sunak, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was essentially Britain’s finance minister, responsible for handling the cost-of-living crisis facing millions of Britons. Javid was Britain’s health and social care secretary, leading the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Both are seen as potential replacements for Johnson, and they had strong words for him in their resignation letters. Sunak said: “The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously. I recognize this may be my last ministerial job, but I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning.”

He also implied that Johnson was not willing to be honest with the public about the costs of stabilizing Britain’s economy, which faces runaway inflation.

In parting words before parliament Wednesday, Javid told Johnson and other lawmakers: “At some point, we have to conclude that enough is enough. I believe that point is now.” He added that in his opinion, “the problem starts at the top.”

Who could replace Boris Johnson as U.K. prime minister?

What is the Chris Pincher scandal?

In February, Johnson promoted Pincher, a Conservative lawmaker, to the position of deputy chief whip in the House of Commons, a leadership role that involves keeping Conservative Party members voting in line with the government’s legislative agenda.

But Pincher last week resigned from that post amid a scandal, as the British press widely reported that he had allegedly tried to grope several men while intoxicated at a bar. Pincher wrote in a letter to Johnson that he “drank far too much” and “embarrassed myself and other people” at a gathering.

Pincher had been accused of inappropriate behavior at least twice before. He resigned from his post as government whip in 2017 after a Conservative Party activist accused him of making unwanted advances toward him. And in 2019, after Johnson brought Pincher back into government, Pincher was again accused of similar misbehavior.

But the key problem for Johnson centers on what he knew, and when. At first, Johnson’s official spokesman said the prime minister did not know of earlier incidents of Pincher’s alleged misconduct. Several cabinet ministers also spoke out defending Johnson, saying they had been assured he did not know about the earlier allegations.

Then, Simon McDonald, the former head of Britain’s diplomatic service, published a letter on Twitter accusing the government of misleading the public — a highly unusual move for a British civil servant. “Mr. Johnson was briefed in person about the initiation and outcome of the investigation,” McDonald said.

Johnson’s office was then forced to backtrack, saying the prime minister had been unable to recall the briefing earlier. In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, Johnson admitted that he was told about the 2019 allegation against Pincher and said he made a “bad mistake” by promoting him despite the complaints. “I regret that,” he said.

What other scandals has Johnson faced?

This is only the latest in a series of scandals he has faced — although it appears to pose one of the biggest challenges to his leadership so far.

Johnson was criticized for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. A public inquiry concluded in October 2021 that the pandemic was “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced.”

British government’s early pandemic response was a historic public health failure, lawmakers say

It was made worse by “Partygate” — a scandal stemming from a dozen boozy government gatherings at Downing Street when lockdowns and social distancing were in place during the worst of the pandemic. In April, Johnson was fined by police — making him the first sitting British prime minister found to have broken the law — for his attendance at a birthday party during lockdown in June 2020.

He has also faced allegations that he tried to secure a government job for his then-girlfriend Carrie Johnson (now his wife) when he was foreign secretary. And he has been criticized over a mounting cost-of-living crisis in the U.K.

Allies began withdrawing their support, with one condemning the “culture of casual lawbreaking” at Downing Street. Last month, he faced a vote of no confidence from his party — and while he survived, more than 40 percent of his Conservative colleagues voted against him.

U.K. to investigate whether Boris Johnson lied about lockdown parties

Adam Taylor contributed to this report.