Boris Johnson has announced his “painful” resignation but defied pressure to step down immediately as prime minister, insisting he would remain in office until a new Conservative party leader is chosen.
In an unapologetic address in front of No 10 Downing Street, after days of turmoil and mass resignations from his government, he accused his party of making an “eccentric” decision to ditch him.
But he said: “It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative party that there should be a new leader for the Conservative party and therefore a new prime minister.”
Johnson, one of the most controversial British leaders in modern times, said the timing of the leadership contest would be agreed next week, but a new prime minister is unlikely to be in place until September at the earliest.
However, many Conservatives, including a number of former ministers, believe Johnson should leave Downing Street immediately. “There’s no way I could serve under him in any circumstances,” said one.
Sir John Major, the former Conservative prime minister, said the proposal for Johnson to remain in office for up to three months was “unwise, and may be unsustainable”.
In a letter to the head of the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs, which oversees rules on leadership elections, he proposed two solutions: a new party leader could be elected quickly by MPs only, rather than party members, and installed as prime minister; or Johnson could resign as prime minister and leave his deputy Dominic Raab to serve in the role on an interim basis.
Allies of Raab confirmed that he would not stand in the party leadership contest, opening up the possibility of him serving as an interim prime minister.
An array of candidates to succeed Johnson are expected to confirm they are running in the coming days. There is no clear frontrunner.
Speaking from a lectern outside Number 10 and applauded by his wife Carrie and a remaining band of loyal Tory MPs, Johnson suggested he had been trampled underfoot by panicking colleagues.
“The herd instinct is powerful,” he said. “But when it moves, it moves.” He insisted that the Conservatives were only a few points behind in the polls and that he had been the victim of “relentless sledging” in recent months.
The lack of contrition from Johnson, or any acknowledgment that he might have been the author of his own problems, further enraged some Tory MPs who believe he must be shown the door to Number 10 now.
“He completely failed to grasp the fundamental failings of his leadership that have led us to this point,” said one Conservative MP who quit the government this week.
Johnson’s failure to tell the truth about issues such as the partygate scandal and his appointment of the disgraced former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher brought Tory discontent over his leadership to a head.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, wrote on Twitter: “In character – blames everyone else. Thinks he’s the real victim. Sets up betrayal story for future Tory conferences & Telegraph columns.”
Johnson’s departure will end a tumultuous three years in office marked by Britain’s exit from the EU, the ravages of Covid-19, the war in Ukraine and a cost of living crisis, as well as his 2019 election win — the Tories’ biggest victory for more than four decades.
Johnson said he was proud of his record, including delivering Brexit, rolling out Britain’s Covid vaccine programme and providing support for Ukraine after the Russian invasion.
He said that he fought hard to hold on to the job — some of his colleagues accused him of demeaning his office by trying to cling on — because he felt it was his “job, duty and obligation” to deliver on promises made to voters.
Before his speech Johnson had already started to fill some ministerial vacancies, with Greg Clark appointed levelling-up secretary. James Cleverly has become the third education secretary in as many days.
Johnson intends to convene his hastily assembled interim cabinet for a meeting on Thursday afternoon, in an attempt to convey a sense of national stability.
But many ministers who have resigned in recent days — including some that have been strongly critical of the prime minister — have indicated they would refuse to return to government while Johnson remains in Number 10.
The pound jumped 0.5 per cent against the dollar, from $1.193 to a high of $1.199, as investors reacted to Johnson’s resignation.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, said: “Boris Johnson is unfit to govern and he needs to go now. He can’t cling on for months.” Starmer said that if Johnson remained Labour would “act in the national interest and bring a vote of no confidence” in the House of Commons.
Conservative MPs would almost certainly vote against such a move, since the loss of a confidence vote would trigger a general election.
The contest to succeed Johnson is already under way, with at least a dozen Tory ministers and MPs eyeing a run at the top job. Tory MPs will whittle down the candidates to a shortlist of two, before Conservative members make the final choice.
One senior Tory MP close to the 1922 executive said there was “a great hope” that the shortlist could be completed before the summer recess, which starts on July 21. The MP added a new leader could be chosen by early September.