LONDON — Boris Johnson, after campaigning hard for a comeback, suddenly dropped out of the race to return as Britain’s prime minister on Sunday, saying it was in the national interest to withdraw from leadership aspirations — for now.
Sunak would be the first leader of color to preside over Britain’s government and the first of Indian descent.
His wife is the daughter of the founder of Infosys, who is a billionaire in India. The couple are among the richest in Britain. Sunak is a graduate of Stanford University and a former employee of Goldman Sachs. He is a centrist on the economy, who promises to balance the books and pay heed to the Bank of England and the bond market.
Sunak, too, was in part responsible for Johnson’s ouster as prime minister.
He abandoned Johnson’s cabinet as his government unraveled over the summer. Sunak was also prescient, saying that the economic plan of Johnson’s replacement, Liz Truss, was based on “fantasy” economics. Truss was a zealous supply-side and tax-cutting enthusiast who lasted just six weeks after that plan caused massive disruption to Britain’s economy.
In a statement, Johnson said he had enough support to proceed to a vote among Conservative Party lawmakers on Monday. That claim was unsupported by tallies of lawmakers by the BBC and the Guardian, which did not show Johnson reaching the hurdle of 100 votes out of 357 Tory members in the House of Commons.
Johnson said, “I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time.”
Johnson said he had reached out to his competitors Sunak and the Conservative Party’s leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt, to strike some kind of deal — Johnson does not specify what kind of deal — “because I hoped that we could come together in the national interest — we have sadly not been able to work out a way of doing this.”
He seemed to blame them for his withdrawal.
“There is a very good chance that I would be successful in the election with Conservative Party members — and that I could indeed be back in Downing Street on Friday,” Johnson said.
“But in the course of the last days I have sadly come to the conclusion that this would simply not be the right thing to do. You can’t govern effectively unless you have a united party in parliament,” he said.
Mordaunt is still in the running but remains far behind with only 25 declared supporters. Sunak has 155. Mordaunt will be hoping to pick up support from undeclared voters and Johnson backers, but already some of those have said they will be backing Sunak.
Sunak reacted to the news of Johnson pulling out, tweeting, “I truly hope he continues to contribute to public life at home and abroad.”
In what could be read as a plea to Johnson supporters, he said: “Boris Johnson delivered Brexit and the great vaccine rollout. He led our country through some of the toughest challenges we have ever faced, and then took on Putin and his barbaric war in Ukraine. We will always be grateful to him for that.”
The problem for Johnson, the mop-headed former leader ousted in July, was this: A lot of his fellow Conservative Party lawmakers, alongside so-called Tory grandees and once-friendly tabloid hacks, thought his return to power would spell “disaster.”
Even some of Johnson’s once closest allies were wary. “Go back to the beach,” his former Brexit sidekick David Davis said.
“It is part of Boris Johnson’s weird political genius that he should be considered for an encore at all,” wrote Charles Moore, his old boss and a columnist at the Telegraph, who warned, “True Boris fans will have the courage to tell him to sit this one out.”
If Johnson had returned to power, it would have been as a wounded prime minister.
He just had too much baggage to make a clean start.
People have seen the movie, which ended when, weighed down by scandal, Johnson was forced to quit in July after more than 50 ministers and aides resigned, calling him unfit to lead.
The sequel — or “Johnson 2.0” as the British press have taken to calling it — would not have escaped the plot points of the original.
For starters, he was still facing a perilous investigation in Parliament over whether he lied to lawmakers about coronavirus lockdown parties at 10 Downing Street. This is a serious charge — which could see him censured or worse — and would likely make headlines for months, a constant reminder of his ouster as party leader and prime minister in July.
Liz Truss resigned as prime minister on Oct. 20 after six chaotic weeks in office. As Tory lawmakers ready themselves for a vote on Monday, over who runs their party and therefore who runs Britain, the surrogates for Johnson and his chief rival, the former finance minister Sunak, were duking it out on the morning talk shows, the gossipy Westminster WhatsApp groups and rounds of phone-calling and arm-twisting.
The members — older, wealthier and 97 percent White — tend to veer to the right of the party, and polling shows that they many did favor Johnson over Sunak. But that could have changed.
Once their hero, many say Johnson has let his members down. They might have missed him — what pollsters saw as “Boris nostalgia” — but did they want to watch the next episode?
Johnson was once hugely popular. Today he is hugely divisive, even in his own party. Outside the party? The general public can’t stand him, according to the polls. His popularity has plummeted.
William Hague, a Tory grandee who was once a party leader himself, said that Johnson’s return to power was the “the worst idea I’ve heard of in the 46 years I’ve been a member of the Conservative Party” and would send the party into a “death spiral.”
Steve Baker, the Northern Ireland minister and influential figure among those on the right of the party, said that Johnson would be a “guaranteed disaster” that was “bound to implode.”
The former home secretary Suella Braverman, who is also on the right of the party, came out for Sunak. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, she said that while she has previously backed Johnson “we are in dire straits now. We need unity, stability and efficiency. Rishi is the only candidate that fits the bill.”
When endorsing Sunak, lawmakers use words and phrases like “stability” and “competence,” saying he is the right man for the economic challenges ahead.
Those endorsing Johnson said “he’s learned from his mistakes” and “is contrite.”
Nadhim Zahawi, a former top minister in Johnson’s government, tweeted, “A day is a long time in politics …” Indeed, it was. Earlier in the day, he wrote that he was backing Johnson, saying he’d “got the big calls right” and “Britain needs him back.” But he quickly switched gears after hearing that his old boss was dropping out of the race and said it was time for the party to rally behind the “immensely talented” Sunak.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, reiterated his calls for a general election. “The country needs to get rid of this chaos,” he told the BBC.
The majority of Brits say they want a general election, even though one is not required until January 2025. An election can be called early but it would require the support of Conservative lawmakers, which seems unlikely given that the party faces a near wipeout if an election was held today. A petition calling for a general election “to end the chaos of the current government” has quickly amassed over 850,000 signatures.