Boris Johnson said Thursday he will resign as leader of Britain’s Conservative Party and prime minister once a successor is chosen, in the face of mounting public anger over scandals that have involved flouting coronavirus restrictions, allegations of misconduct on the part of a key ally and more than 50 senior lawmakers quitting the government.
In a speech outside No. 10 Downing Street, Johnson said it’s “clearly the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader” and the timetable for that process will be announced next week.
As boos could be heard from protesters, Johnson addressed the British public with, “I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world, but them’s the breaks.”
Critics have pushed back on Johnson’s plan to stay as caretaker prime minister, saying he should go immediately. Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer threatened to use a no-confidence parliamentary procedure to oust Johnson if he doesn’t leave straight away.
In his speech, Johnson seemed to be most angry at his own party for forcing him out, three years after he led them to a solid majority in elections:
“But as we’ve seen, at Westminster the herd instinct is powerful. When the herd moves, it moves.”
“And, my friends, in politics no one is remotely indispensable, and our brilliant and Darwinian system will produce another leader, equally committed to taking this country forward through tough times.”
The political tumult kicked off when two of Johnson’s top Cabinet ministers resigned Tuesday following the prime minister’s admission that he knew about past sexual harassment accusations made against Conservative MP Chris Pincher ― and had chosen him for an influential government position anyway.
The pair triggered an avalanche of resignations on the part of ministers, private secretaries and others. More people quit Johnson’s government in a single day than ever before in British history. Many of those who stuck around urged the prime minister to resign; that group reportedly included Home Secretary Priti Patel, a loyal Johnson supporter. But Johnson initially resisted, reportedly claiming he was helping his party by staying on.
Pincher, in addition to allegedly groping two men at a ritzy event last month, has been accused of inappropriate behavior on at least two other occasions since 2017. He served just a few months as deputy whip before stepping down in disgrace.
The Cabinet ministers’ letters of resignation indicated they had lost all confidence in Johnson’s leadership of the British Conservative party. Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that the “public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously,” and that he believed “these standards are worth fighting for.” Health Secretary Sajid Javid said Johnson’s “tone” was not reflecting well on the party and it was clear “this situation will not change under your leadership.”
Johnson said earlier that he “bitterly” regretted elevating Pincher’s position in the government.
In December 2021, the prime minister attracted criticism that snowballed into a no-confidence vote after it emerged that multiple parties had been held at his Downing Street residence while the country was either in lockdown or under restrictions due to the coronavirus in 2020 and 2021.
Johnson apologized for attending one of the gatherings, claiming he thought it was a “work event.”
Johnson weathered the vote in January. But amid public anger over an apparent “one rule for them, one for us” divide concerning COVID-19 regulations, his fellow Tories began calling for his resignation as media reports about the celebrations piled up.
One of the most damning reports came from The Telegraph, which used to pay Johnson £275,000 (about $376,000) a year to write a column. Downing Street staff reportedly held a party the night before Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021, at a time when people were only allowed to socialize outdoors in group of six. The paper illustrated the story with a now-famous photo of the queen sitting alone at her husband’s funeral due to social distancing rules.
Ultimately, what led Johnson to resign wasn’t his long-documented history of racism, his management of a pandemic that resulted in one of the highest death tolls in the world or his zealous pursuit of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, which thus far has left the U.K. grappling with supply chain issues and a depleted economy. Rather, his exit will be a result of scandals that arguably left a smaller footprint.
Johnson became prime minister in July 2019, succeeding Theresa May. The Conservatives will now go through their party’s process to choose a new leader.
This story has been updated with Johnson’s statement.