Boris Johnson quit as leader of the Conservative Party after a sexual harassment scandal and subsequent ministerial resignations engulfed his government, but controversially wanted to remain as prime minister for months while a successor was found.
In an ill-tempered speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street, Johnson made no apology or expressed contrition for the multitude of scandals that have dogged his premiership since he became prime minister in July 2019.
He said he had tried to persuade colleagues that changing leader would be “eccentric”, but had failed to do so even though the Tory party had a “vast mandate” and was only “a handful of points behind in the polls even in midterm after quite a few months of pretty relentless sledging and when the economic scene is so difficult domestically and internationally”.
There was a jibe at those who withdrew their support. “As we have seen at Westminster, the herd instinct is powerful and when the herd moves, it moves,” he said.
Later in the day Johnson told a hastily put-together interim cabinet that no major policies, tax decisions or other changes of direction would be made before the a new leader was appointed.
It followed an extraordinary standoff overnight, when Johnson had stubbornly refused to go, claiming, falsely, that he had a personal mandate from the UK electorate to remain in power.
A flood of departures by senior and junior ministers caused widespread concern in Whitehall that the actual business of government was grinding to a halt. A delegation of senior cabinet members, including newly-appointed Finance Minister Nadhim Zahawi and Home Secretary Priti Patel, met Johnson in Downing Street on Wednesday night and urged him to quit.
However, Johnson refused, and even went so far as to sack Michael Gove, the man in charge of the government’s so-called “levelling up” agenda, who had gone to see the prime minister to also tell him his time was up.
There will be pressure from within cabinet and backbench MPs for Johnson to resign as prime minister as well, making way for a caretaker leader such as Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister.
After a days of drama that started with the resignations of former finance minister Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid on Tuesday, the prime minister ended Wednesday in an impasse with his own cabinet despite the departure of more than 50 ministers and aides and the sacking of Michael Gove, who had earlier told the prime minister in a face-to-face meeting that he believed his position was unsustainable.
A PREMIERSHIP OF SCANDAL
The final straw was his mishandling of sexual harassment claims against the former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher who quit last week after being accused of groping two men at a private club while he was drunk. It emerged that Johnson had been told of other similar allegations against the MP before he promoted him to the whips’ office.
Downing Street spent days denying Johnson had any knowledge of the prior incidents, but was forced into a u-turn this week before Johnson made matters worse by claiming he couldn’t recall the warnings of Pincher’s past behaviour and then had to issue a humiliating apology.
Pressure continued to mount on Thursday morning when the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, became the latest to quit when he handed in his resignation letter and Zahawi, in post less than 48 hours, withdrew his public support.
On Thursday morning Zahawi released a public letter saying he was “heartbroken” that Johnson was not listening to his advice as a friend of over 30 years that he must resign.
“Prime Minister: this is not sustainable and it will only get worse: for you, for the Conservative party and most importantly of all the country. You must do the right thing and go now,” he said, but stopped short of resigning himself.
Michelle Donelan, the education secretary appointed this week, resigned, saying the cabinet needed to force Johnson’s hand. She followed Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, who also walked out on Thursday morning.
Johnson faced the prospect of a second vote of no confidence as soon as next week, with elections to the executive of the backbench 1922 Committee due to be held on Monday and likely to result in a change to the rules.
His premiership has been characterised by scandals and allegations of lying to cover them up along with exaggerated claims of government policies. Johnson became the first UK prime minister to be found guilty of breaking the law when he received a police fine over parties in Downing Street when the country was in a Covid lockdown.
He has also rewritten the rules on the standards system that governs MP and ministerial behaviour and stands accused of trying to break international law by unilaterally rewriting the Northern Ireland protocol agreed as part of the Brexit deal.