After months of defiance and pandemic controversy, Boris Johnson has quit as British prime minister.
Mr Johnson’s announcement to a crowd of assembled media, supporters and protesters came at 9.30pm Thursday (Australian time), after days of fevered speculation and chaos.
“It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader, and therefore a new prime minister,” he said outside No.10 Downing Street.
“And that process should begin now.”
It followed media reports that Mr Johnson, 58, was preparing to stand down, but wanted to remain in the top job until the northern autumn and the Conservatives begin their search for a new leader.
“Today I have appointed a cabinet to serve, as I will, until a new leader is in place,” Mr Johnson said outside his Downing Street office where his speech was watched by close allies and his wife Carrie.
“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.”
Mr Johnson gave no apology for the events leading to his announcement and said his forced departure was “eccentric”.
There were cheers and applause as he began his speech, while boos rang out from some outside the gates of Downing Street.
The Conservatives will now have to elect a new leader, a process which could take weeks or months.
Many said Mr Johnson should leave immediately and hand over to his deputy, Dominic Raab, saying he had lost the trust of his party.
Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said he would call a parliamentary confidence vote if the Conservatives did not remove Mr Johnson at once.
“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,” he said.
Russians slam ‘clown’
Shortly afterwards, Russian politicians lined up to celebrate the downfall of Mr Johnson, casting the British leader as a “stupid clown” who had finally got his just reward for arming Ukraine against Russia.
Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska said on Telegram that it was an “inglorious end” for a “stupid clown” whose conscience would be blighted by “tens of thousands of lives in this senseless conflict in Ukraine”.
“The clown is going,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament. “He is one of the main ideologues of the war against Russia until the last Ukrainian. European leaders should think about where such a policy leads.”
Maria Zakharova, the top spokeswoman in Russia’s foreign ministry, said Mr Johnson’s fall was a symptom of the decline of the West, which she said was riven by political, ideological and economic crisis.
“The moral of the story is: do not seek to destroy Russia,” Ms Zakharova said. “Russia cannot be destroyed. You can break your teeth on it – and then choke on them.”
Ms Zakharova gleefully portrayed Johnson as the author of his own downfall.
“Boris Johnson was hit by a boomerang launched by himself,” she said. “His comrades-in-arms turned him in.”
‘Best job in the world’
Earlier, Mr Johnson said he was sad to give up what he called “the best job in the world”.
“Being prime minister is an education in itself. I’ve travelled to every part of the United Kingdom,” he said.
“Even if things can sometimes seem dark now, our future together is golden.”
Despite surviving a vote of no confidence in Parliament last month, Mr Johnson’s departure followed his abandonment by newly appointed ministers and more than 50 others in the past two days.
With eight ministers, including two secretaries of state, resigning within two hours on Thursday, an isolated and powerless Mr Johnson had to bow to the inevitable.
It followed the spectacular resignation of more than 40 ministers and aides who quit in one day on Wednesday, even as Mr Johnson dug in his heels and refused to budge.
Earlier on Thusday, Britain’s new finance minister Nadhim Zahawi told Mr Johnson to resign – less than 48 hours after the PM promoted him. Mr Zahawi said the crisis engulfing the government would only get worse unless Mr Johnson departed.
“This is not sustainable and it will only get worse, for you, for the Conservative Party and most importantly of all the country,” Mr Zahawi tweeted.
“You must do the right thing and go now.”
Mr Johnson’s colleagues said he was not fit to be in charge after a series of scandals, while dozens in his Conservative Party are in open revolt.
Under Tory party rules Mr Johnson was protected as leader for another 11 months from a new vote.
But some MPs wanted to change those rules and his frustrated colleagues brought things to a head by trying to force his departure from the top job. There was a parade of MPs through Mr Johnson’s Downing Street office before his announcement on Thursday.
The rebellion followed yet another scandal in which Mr Johnson appointed an MP to a key role, even after he was briefed that the politician had been the subject of complaints about sexual misconduct.
It was far cry from when the one-time London mayor rose to power in 2019, when he won a large majority, capturing votes in parts of Britain that had never supported his Conservative Party.
The defiant Mr Johnson had suggested that he had a mandate to govern from the almost 14 million voters who voted for the Conservatives in December 2019 when he swept to power with a promise to sort out Britain’s exit from the European Union after years of bitter wrangling.
The latest crisis erupted after MP Chris Pincher, a government whip, was forced to quit over accusations he groped men in a private member’s club.
Mr Johnson had to apologise after it emerged that he was briefed that Mr Pincher had been the subject of previous sexual misconduct complaints before he appointed him.
The issue followed months of scandals and missteps, including a damning report into parties at Mr Johnson’s Downing Street residence and office that broke strict COVID-19 lockdown rules and resulted in him being him fined by police.