British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, facing widespread defections in his Conservative government, said Thursday he is resigning as the party leader but will stay as the caretaker prime minister until a new party chief is elected.
Johnson said it is “clearly the will” of his Conservative Party that there should be a new leader. Johnson also said that in the meantime he would remain as the country’s leader, although critics said he should be ousted as soon as possible.
His announcement came after about 50 government officials, including several senior Cabinet ministers, resigned amid calls for Johnson to step down.
It wasn’t immediately clear when Johnson would leave office. His resignation will lead to an internal election within the Conservative Party to pick a new leader, who will also be the next prime minister. The process, however, could take weeks, with several party members already eyeing the top spot.
Johnson had clung to power for two days, defiantly rebuffing calls for his resignation. He told lawmakers on Wednesday that he had a “colossal mandate” from voters to stay in office.
He was forced to concede Thursday morning after two more members of his Cabinet quit and one of his closest allies, Treasury Chief Nadhim Zahawi, publicly told him to resign for the good of the country.
Zahawi, who was promoted earlier this week as Johnson tried to retain power, said he and a group of colleagues had privately expressed their concerns to the prime minister on Wednesday, but that he decided to go public after Johnson ignored the advice to immediately resign.
“I am heartbroken that he hasn’t listened and that he is now undermining the incredible achievements of this government,” Zahawi said in a letter posted on Twitter. “But the country deserves a government that is not only stable, but which acts with integrity.”
George Freeman, who quit as science minister on Thursday, said in a tweet, “Now PM has finally done the decent thing he needs to hand in the seals of office, apologize to Her Majesty (Queen Elizabeth II), allow her to appoint a caretaker under whom ministers can serve, so the Conservative Party can choose a new leader properly.”
It is a humiliating defeat for the 58-year-old Johnson, who maintained power for nearly three years, succeeded in leading Britain out of the European Union and was credited with overseeing one of the world’s most successful mass vaccination campaigns to combat COVID-19.
But the perpetually rumpled leader, his blond hair looking like he had just awakened, faced frequent criticism that he misled parliament about government office parties at No. 10 Downing Street, his official residence, that broke pandemic lockdown rules.
Recent disclosures that Johnson knew about sexual misconduct allegations against a Conservative lawmaker, Chris Pincher, before he promoted him to a senior position in government, proved to be one scandal too many.
Johnson faced a round of tough questions from angry and skeptical lawmakers during the traditional prime minister’s question and answer session in parliament Wednesday, a day after Finance Minister Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid unexpectedly quit within minutes of each other.
The two men resigned after Johnson apologized for appointing Pincher to a key party post despite allegations Pincher groped two men at a private club in London while he was intoxicated.
Officials in Johnson’s government initially said Johnson did not know about the allegations surrounding Pincher, but later acknowledged he had been told about previous accusations against the lawmaker in 2019.
In his resignation letter, Sunak wrote that the British public “rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously. I believe these standards are worth fighting for, and that is why I am resigning.”
Johnson immediately replaced Sunak and Javid with other members from his Cabinet. But another Cabinet official, Welsh Secretary Simon Hart, added his resignation late Wednesday, saying it was past the point where it was possible to “turn the ship around.”
The latest scandal comes just weeks after Johnson survived a no-confidence vote within his Conservative Party after he received a police fine for violating his own COVID-19 lockdown rules by holding parties at 10 Downing Street.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.