LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Thursday that he would resign, ending a tumultuous tenure that began on a wave of Brexit enthusiasm but crashed on a series of scandals and an internal revolt that sparked a political crisis.
Facing public distrust and mounting discontent in his own party and government, Johnson had defiantly sought to cling to power. He finally said he would quit after a crushing number of his own lawmakers moved to topple their once-talismanic leader, saying he was no longer fit to govern just a month after he survived a confidence vote.
Johnson’s decision to step down as leader of the ruling Conservative Party will trigger a leadership race, with the winner set to become the United Kingdom’s fourth leader in the six years since the June 2016 Brexit referendum.
In a speech outside No. 10 Downing Street that capped days of Westminster drama, Johnson said he planned to remain as prime minister until a successor was chosen — a move that may face opposition from others in an increasingly hostile parliament.
It comes after a series of ministers resigned in the wake of shifting explanations over his handling of a sexual misconduct scandal, which added to months of fury over revelations of alcohol-fueled parties Johnson and his aides held during Covid-19 lockdown.
While the stream of ministers abandoning his government turned to a flood, Johnson refused to give in to what seemed to outside observers an undeniable political reality. In a remarkable twist, he was even abandoned by the finance minister and education minister he had promoted just 36 hours earlier in a bid to hold on.
News emerged a short time later that the prime minister would address the country and bring the saga to an end.
Even some who had said they personally liked and respected Johnson felt that the latest scandals were too much.
“It’s very sad but I’m relieved that he has stood down,” John Baron, the MP for Basildon and Billericay in eastern England, told NBC News. “I just wish we hadn’t been through these last few days. It must have been painful for his family and certainly painful for the country to watch.”
Poll ratings for Johnson, 58, and his party plummeted since the lockdown party scandal, known in the U.K. as “partygate.” Public anger persisted for months, with Johnson and his wife, Carrie, booed as they arrived for a Platinum Jubilee event last month.
On June 6, Johnson narrowly won a confidence vote among his own lawmakers, leaving him damaged but still in power and his party bitterly divided. Within weeks another scandal forced a lawmaker to step down from his senior role involving party discipline and welfare amid sexual misconduct allegations.
A series of senior lawmakers subsequently resigned, with their exit and Johnson’s defiance leaving Britain’s government virtually rudderless as it faces some of its most serious crises in decades.
“Any other PM wouldn’t have put their colleagues and country through the chaos of the last 48 hours,” Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University in London, said. “To the extent that Johnson refused to face up to reality for longer than any rational, democratic politician would have, that really was unprecedented.”
Johnson has always been a divisive figure, but his popularity among Conservative Party lawmakers and members had until now largely withstood the twin stresses of Covid-19 and Brexit during his two-and-a-half-year leadership.
Hailed by some commentators as a scruffy colossus remaking British politics, Johnson’s abrupt fall from grace will see him leave office with his reputation in tatters and his country facing a precarious moment. Britain is grappling with a cost-of-living crisis and the challenges of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
It is a remarkable downfall for a man who defied doubters to strike a Brexit deal with the European Union before winning an electoral landslide in 2019 and promising sweeping reforms for a country that has spent years mired in division and dysfunction.