LONDON — Boris Johnson stepped down as leader of the Conservative Party on Thursday, making way for a new prime minister, following an avalanche of resignations by members of his party that eroded his authority and paralyzed the British government.
Johnson did not become emotional, nor did he apologize for the behavior that brought the 58-year-old politician to this low point.
Instead, he blamed his party for his downfall, comparing his fellow lawmakers to stampeding animals. “As we have seen at Westminster … when the herd moves, it moves. And my friends, in politics, no one is remotely indispensable,” Johnson said.
There will be no general election. Instead, the next leader of Britain will be chosen in a vote by dues-paying members of the Conservative Party, which will remain in power. Johnson said he would serve until a new leader is in place, which could take six weeks or longer. He appointed a new cabinet of officials to replace all the ministers who had abandoned him, while pledging not to “implement new policies or make major changes of direction.”
Johnson paid tribute to his wife, Carrie, who was watching his speech with their young daughter in her arms. Johnson said they had been through “so much,” but he did not signal any of it was his fault.
“I know there are many people who are relieved, and perhaps quite a few who will also be disappointed. 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 said.
In the end, it wasn’t a policy failure that ended his premiership. It wasn’t a money scandal involving dodgy deals or crony contracts. It wasn’t really a lack of vision. What did in Johnson was his constant bobbing, weaving and ducking. His dissembling. His prevarications over a series of scandals — coronavirus lockdown parties, the refurbishment of his official apartment and the appointment of an ally accused of sexual misconduct.
His fellow Tories expressed not disappointment in Johnson, but disgust.
“Enough is enough,” said outgoing health minister and leadership contender Sajid Javid. “I have concluded that the problem starts at the top, and I believe that it is not going to change.”
Johnson’s cabinet ministers were sick of being shoved in front of the cameras to defend the government on morning TV news shows — only to find out hours or days later that Johnson and his aides hadn’t told them the full truth.
With Johnson, there was always another shoe to drop.
Although it is not uncommon in British politics for a prime minister to stay on until the selection of their successor — Theresa May remained in place for about two months in 2019 — some lawmakers and party grandees warned that Johnson was soiling the party brand and that he was too damaged to stay in office through the summer.
“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,” wrote former prime minister John Major.
Dominic Cummings — Johnson’s former top aide and now chief critic, who helped his boss win the Brexit referendum and get elected — warned that the prime minister needed to go now. In a tweet, he urged the Conservative Party to “Evict TODAY or he’ll cause CARNAGE.”
In his downfall, some might forget that just a few years ago, Johnson was flying high. A former mayor of London and newspaper columnist, he was the rock star of his party. His speeches at the annual Conservative Party convention were standing room-only. People lined up hours beforehand to get in.
Johnson was known to have a loose relationship with the truth. He was sacked from the Times of London for making up a quote in 1988 — before making a name for himself as a Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph with exaggerated and inaccurate dispatches. In 2004, he was fired from a leadership post in the Conservative Party after he lied about having an affair. Using typical Johnsonian language, he initially dismissed the claims as an “inverted pyramid of piffle” before other evidence emerged.
And yet, even if they didn’t completely trust him, his fellow Tories loved him. Yes, he was thrice married, with six or seven children — he regularly dodged the question. But he wasn’t a scold, he was a libertarian. He could drink a pint, eat a sausage, tell a joke. He played to nationalist sentiments as he bashed the European Union and promised to “unshackle” Britain.
And most importantly, he was election gold, winning the party a record-breaking 80-seat majority in 2019, with talk of a coming “Tory Era,” with the party — and Johnson — in power for a decade or more.
“It makes me laugh when those who resigned say Boris Johnson has lost his reputation for integrity and competence,” said Jonathan Tonge, a professor of politics at the University of Liverpool. “He never had a reputation in either of those two fields to lose. Boris Johnson became a leader because he was a vote winner. Once the election winning ended, there wasn’t much left.”
While Johnson’s unraveling seemed to happen at a dizzying pace, analysts said it had been underway for some time. The Conservative Party fared poorly in local elections in May, and polls suggested the party would lose a majority in the next general election. Last month, Johnson only narrowly won a vote of confidence in his leadership, with 41 percent of his party’s lawmakers saying he was unfit to govern. Remarkably, he was even booed at an event for the jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, by the kind of pro-royal crowd that would typically be supportive of a Conservative leader.
“I nearly fell off my chair,” Tonge said. “When the crowd booed, that to me was jaw-dropping, the public had really turned.”
And now? Neither the Conservative Party nor the British people know who they will get.
A poll by YouGov on Thursday found that Defense Secretary Ben Wallace was leading the pack. As the world watched the Johnson fold and the British government unravel on Thursday, Wallace felt it necessary to assure Britons that they were being protected. He tweeted: “a number of us have an obligation to keep this country safe, no matter who is PM.”
Also among the top contenders: Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt, former finance minister and chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
Many of the names are untested on a big stage. They might have baggage. Sunak was hailed as a likely successor a few months ago. Then it was revealed that his billionaire wife didn’t pay full taxes in Britain. When former foreign minister Jeremy Hunt ran against Johnson for party leadership in 2019, his fellow Conservatives liked him, thought him competent. They clapped politely. But for Johnson they roared.
Johnson is hardly the first Conservative leader to have been shoved aside by his party, which is famous for ditching its leaders quickly when they are no longer assets. Even Winston Churchill resigned — after being given a gentle push — as his health declined in his later years.
Among recent Conservative prime ministers, Johnson is a rarity in that he wasn’t felled over the question of Britain’s relationship with Europe. May, David Cameron, Major and Margaret Thatcher were all ousted in part because they could not get their party, let alone the country, to agree on how closely tied Britain and the continent should be.
Brexit was Johnson’s signal achievement, for better or worse, still to be determined. He convinced the British people to leave the European Union and its regulatory alignment, customs union and single market‚ and as prime minister he delivered on his promise to “get Brexit done.” The public may be tired of the endless debate on the topic, but Johnson’s vision of a swashbuckling, free-trading nation with a global booming economy — welcoming to the “best and brightest” immigrants — has not yet been realized. Nor has Brexit been that bad.
Johnson apparently won’t be missed by his European neighbors.
Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin told reporters the relationship between Britain and his country “has come under strain” during Johnson’s tenure and that the prime minister’s resignation is “an opportunity to return to the true spirit of partnership and mutual respect.”
First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, who wants her nation to seek independence outside the United Kingdom, tweeted that “people across the UK need and deserve better — especially now — than a badly written soap opera.”
Johnson has been cheered in Ukraine even while becoming increasingly unpopular in Britain, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky telephoned on Thursday to express his “sadness” over the British leader’s resignation, according to a government readout.
Meanwhile, Moscow’s ambassador to Britain, Andrei Kelin, told Reuters that Johnson “concentrated too much on the geopolitical situation, on Ukraine,” while ignoring his country’s economic problems. Russia “would prefer someone who is not so antagonistic or belligerent,” he added.
Like May before him, Johnson is being pushed out after just about three years in office.
He initially resisted pressure to resign, saying that he had a 14-million-vote mandate from the British people who cast their ballots for him and his party in the last general election, in 2019.
But he woke up Thursday morning in Downing Street, his office and residence, to another wave of resignations by government officials and party members declaring that he must step down immediately — for the sake of the party and the country.
Nadhim Zahawi, who on Tuesday was appointed chancellor, the second-most important job in government, turned on Johnson on Thursday, tweeting: “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. You must do the right thing and go now.”
Before the breakfast shows on television were over, there had been 53 resignations, including four cabinet ministers, since late Tuesday. Many of the letters included brutal assessments of Johnson’s tenure and critiques of his honesty.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said the British government requires “honesty, integrity and mutual respect” and that it is “now past the point of no return.”
Damian Hinds, the departing security minister, told Johnson that “it shouldn’t take the resignation of dozens of colleagues, but for our country, and trust in our democracy, we must have a change of leadership.”
Any member of Parliament for the Conservative party can put themselves forward for the role — provided they receive nominations from at least eight colleagues. The party holds several rounds of secret-ballot votes to whittle down the field, eliminating the person with the fewest votes each time. The final two candidates are then put before the grass-roots members of the party, a group of about 200,000. They then select the winner.
A previous version of this story misstated the number of backers a leadership candidate needs. Contenders need nominations from at least eight colleagues. The article has been updated.