LONDON (AP) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to resign Thursday after days of defections crippled the controversial leader and left him unable to govern.
Johnson finally agreed to step down after one of his closest allies, Treasury chief Nadhim Zahawi, told the prime minister to resign for the good of the country. It was not immediately clear whether Johnson would remain in office while the Conservative Party elects a new leader, who will automatically become prime minister. An official announcement is expected later on Thursday.
In a major coup, 2 key ministers have left Boris Johnson’s government
“Prime Minister: this is not sustainable and it will only get worse: for you, for the Conservative Party and most importantly for the whole country,” Zahawi said in a letter to Johnson. “You must do the right thing and leave now.”
Zahawi’s intervention came after two more members of Johnson’s cabinet resigned, along with three junior officials, bringing to 50 the number who have left the government this week.
On Wednesday, Johnson rejected calls to resign, arguing that he had received a voter mandate to remain in office. But by Thursday morning, the man who has built a reputation for steering clear of political controversy was forced to acknowledge the reality of his situation.
Bernard Jenkin, a senior Conservative MP, said he met Johnson on Wednesday and advised him to step down.
“I just told him: ‘Look, now it’s just when you go, and that’s how you’re going to go. You can leave with some dignity or you can be driven out like Donald Trump, clinging to power and pretending he won an election when he lost it,’ Jenkin told the BBC before Johnson agreed to resign.
Johnson, 58, has managed to stay in power for almost three years, despite accusations that he was too close to party donors, that he shielded supporters from bullying and corruption allegations, and that he misled parliament and was dishonest with the public about parties in government services he breached lockdown rules due to the pandemic.
But recent revelations that Johnson knew about the allegations against Chris Pincher, a Conservative MP, before he promoted Pincher to the top job, proved to be the final straw.
Last week Pincher resigned as deputy chief whip after complaints he groped two men at a private club. It triggered a series of reports about past allegations made against Pincher – and changing government explanations about what Johnson knew when he picked him for the top job of enforcing party discipline.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Treasury chief Rishi Sunak resigned within minutes of each other on Wednesday over the scandal. The two heavyweights in the cabinet were responsible for tackling the two biggest problems facing Britain – the cost of living crisis and COVID-19.
Javid captured the mood of many MPs when he said Johnson’s actions threatened to undermine the integrity of the Conservative Party and the British government.
“At some point we have to conclude that enough is enough,” he told fellow lawmakers on Wednesday. “I believe that is the point now.”
Welsh Minister Simon Hart resigned on Wednesday and Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis followed suit early on Thursday, telling Johnson in his resignation that “… we have passed the point of no return. I cannot sacrifice my personal integrity to defend things as they are now.” He was later followed by Education Minister Michelle Donelan, who was appointed to her post in Zahawi’s place only on Tuesday.
Johnson tried to defy the mathematics of parliamentary government and the traditions of British politics. It is rare for a prime minister to hold on to power in the face of so much pressure from his cabinet colleagues.
The closest parallel might be Margaret Thatcher, the long-serving Conservative prime minister who in 1990 sought to remain in office after her authority was undermined by disagreements over Britain’s relationship with what is now known as the European Union. But even she decided to resign after a number of ministers told her that it would be better for the party if she stepped down.
Johnson could try to stay in office until the Conservative Party chooses a new leader, which could probably happen in the summer. But some Conservatives said he should leave Downing St immediately. 10 to end the chaos engulfing the government.
George Freeman, who resigned as Science Secretary on Thursday, tweeted that “Boris Johnson must hand over the seals of office, apologize to Her Majesty (Queen Elizabeth II) and advise her to call in an interim Prime Minister. Take office today so ministers can get back to work and so we can elect a new Conservative leader who will try to repair the damage and rebuild trust.”