British Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned Thursday, brought down by a steady stream of personal and policy scandals just three years after leading his Conservative Party to its biggest parliamentary majority in more than three decades.
The colorful, mop-haired prime minister, who survived numerous ethical scrapes over the years, was forced from power by an open rebellion in his Conservative ranks. Dozens of ministers and top party officials said they could no longer serve under him.
In remarks outside his No. 10 Downing St. residence Thursday morning, Mr. Johnson indicated that he wants to stay on and lead a caretaker government while his party selects a new prime minister — a process that could take weeks or even months. A snap YouGov poll suggested that Defense Minister Ben Wallace is the slight early favorite to replace him, but a number of candidates — including Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt — are expected to vie for the job in what could be a wide-open and unpredictable succession battle.
“Today I have appointed a Cabinet to serve, as I will, until a new leader is in place,” a philosophical Mr. Johnson said as aides and his wife, Carrie, looked on.
“I know that there will be many people who are relieved and perhaps quite a few who will also be disappointed. And I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world. But them’s the breaks.”
The announcement, after Mr. Johnson vowed repeatedly to resist pressure to step aside, sets up a period of deep uncertainty for Britain, analysts said, beginning with whether the party will honor the prime minister’s request to stay in his post for possibly several months before a new leader is anointed.
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The potential successors span the Conservative Party spectrum, from those who backed Mr. Johnson’s free-spending pro-Brexit agenda to more traditional candidates from the Tories’ historical base.
The next prime minister will inherit a number of political hot potatoes, including a need to address an economy wracked by inflation and lagging growth, a clash with the European Union over Mr. Johnson’s attempts to unilaterally rewrite the Brexit deal along the Ireland-Northern Ireland border and, more generally, the question of how to steer British economic and foreign policy as it adjusts to life outside the EU.
“The key issue is what is going to be our leverage outside the European Union,” Simon Fraser, a former head of the Foreign Office and now managing partner of the political consulting firm Flint Global, told Bloomberg. Mr. Johnson said he did not intend to undertake major policy moves as a lame duck, but Mr. Fraser was one of a number of commentators who predicted the Conservative Party will move quickly to get a new leader into office.
The party has been reeling not only from Mr. Johnson’s personal problems but also from an electoral map that has turned against it, including bad losses in two by-elections last month at a time when the Labor Party, out of power for a dozen years, leads in the national opinion polling.
Mr. Johnson’s standing was badly hurt by revelations that he and his staff had participated in a string of COVID-19 lockdown-defying social events, including some at No. 10 Downing St., while the government was enforcing strict curfew measures in Britain.
A no-confidence vote pressed by Conservative backbenchers last month gained significant support but fell short. Mr. Johnson vowed in recent days to press ahead. He said the country could not afford a leadership vacuum while dealing with inflation at home and the fallout from the Russia-Ukraine war.
SEE ALSO: From Brexit to Partygate, a timeline of Johnson’s career
But a fresh scandal, involving the failed appointment of a minister who the prime minister’s office knew had ethical problems, proved the tipping point in recent weeks. Two leading Cabinet ministers quit this week, and more than 50 ministers joined them in the following days.
The party has a history of consuming its own — Mr. Johnson won the prime minister’s job by engineering the ouster of Conservative predecessor Theresa May — but it nevertheless marked a remarkable fall from grace for the prime minister, who pushed through a Brexit deal taking the U.K. out of the European Union and in 2019 won a historic mandate claiming seats in districts never before won by the party.
“His resignation was inevitable,” Justin Tomlinson, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, said on Twitter. “As a party we must quickly unite and focus on what matters. These are serious times on many fronts.”
Labor Party leader Keir Starmer said in a statement that his party would press for a formal no-confidence vote against the government over Mr. Johnson. He said he would stay on the job while his successor is being determined.
“It’s obvious he’s unfit to be prime minister. That’s been blindingly obvious for a very, very long time,” Mr. Starmer said. “If they don’t get rid of him then Labour will step up, in the national interest, and bring a vote of no confidence because we can’t go on with this prime minister clinging on for months and months to come.”
Polarizing at home and abroad
The often polarizing prime minister sparked equally divergent reactions abroad, with Russia openly celebrating his fall and Ukraine, which Mr. Johnson strongly and visibly supported in the face of Moscow’s invasion, expressing gratitude for his stance.
The White House issued a more bland statement, saying it expected to be able to work productively with the next prime minister. Some in Washington said Mr. Johnson’s surprisingly forthright support of Ukraine in the Russia crisis would be missed.
The Johnson government had been harshly critical of Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine, and Mr. Johnson made trips to Kyiv in April and June while offering Ukrainian forces weapons and training. The U.K. under Mr. Johnson also levied tough sanctions on the community of wealthy Russian oligarchs who made London a second base of operations in Europe in the wake of the invasion.
Russia did not bother to hide its satisfaction at the day’s events.
“We would like to hope that someday in Great Britain more professional people who can make decisions through dialogue will come to power,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, according to the official Tass news service. He expressed doubt that Mr. Johnson’s successor will be an improvement.
Mr. Johnson, he added, “really does not like us, and we do not like him either.”
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Russian parliament, was equally blunt. He wrote on the Telegram messaging app, “The clown has gone.”
The response was different in Kyiv, where President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Mr. Johnson “a true friend of Ukraine” and expressed hope that London would continue its support despite the change in government.
“We all heard this news with sadness. Not only me, but also the entire Ukrainian society, which is very sympathetic to you. My entire office and all Ukrainians are grateful to you for your help,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in a message for Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Johnson sparked equally mixed feelings in Brussels. He first gained notoriety as a journalist crusading against the real — and sometimes invented — excesses of the European Union bureaucracy. Some said the fall of the champion of Brexit mirrored U.S. voters’ rejection of Donald Trump in 2020.
“Boris Johnson’s reign ends in disgrace, just like his friend Donald Trump. The end of an era of transatlantic populism? Let’s hope so,” tweeted Guy Verhofstadt, a former Brexit coordinator for the European Union. “EU-UK relations suffered hugely with Johnson’s choice of Brexit. Things can only get better!”
Whenever the resignation takes effect, it appears for now to be the end of a remarkable run for Mr. Johnson, who is 58 years old. Despite his personal appearance and sometimes blustering public persona, he was a different kind of populist than Mr. Trump, with whom he forged a working political alliance.
Unlike Mr. Trump, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson could spout Latin aphorisms he learned while studying the classics at Eton College and Oxford and claimed Winston Churchill as his political idol. He spent decades as a provocative journalist and political pundit before winning a seat in Parliament in 2001.
He served two terms as a popular mayor of London before joining Ms. May’s government as foreign secretary in 2016, and he became a foremost champion of Brexit as the government struggled to negotiate a final divorce from the EU. He used Brexit as a cudgel to challenge Ms. May for control of the Conservative Party leadership, winning a leadership battle in 2019 and shortly afterward leading the party to a massive victory in December 2019 under the slogan “Get Brexit Done.”
Mr. Johnson’s ambitions were undercut by his unsteady response to the COVID-19 crisis and its hit to the British economy, coupled with a string of personal scandals that reignited questions about his ethics and his political acumen. He had become, in the words of one BBC commentator, an “unpopular populist.”
In the end, Mr. Johnson’s growing chorus of critics charged, his larger-than-life persona could not make up for a failure to attend to the finer details of governing.
Kim Darroch, a former British ambassador to Washington who clashed at times with Mr. Johnson, told Bloomberg that the departing prime minister would be remembered as a “brilliant campaigner with a knack for winning elections.”
Still, he said, “I’m afraid he will be remembered also as a fairly unsuccessful prime minister, a prime minister who won an 80-seat majority barely two years ago, [a victory that] has been squandered, not with policy issues really, but with self-inflicted wounds and mistakes.”
• Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.