British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s political career was marked by a remarkable ability to overcome scandals and gaffes that would ruin almost any other politician. But he couldn’t defy political odds forever, and eventually his roars and missteps eventually took their toll, culminating in his resignation as leader of the Conservative Party.
Nevertheless, after weeks of controversy and some crushing Conservative losses in recent midterm elections, Mr Johnson did not go quietly. He resisted resignation for days and only relented after more than 50 ministers, secretaries of parliament and other conservative MPs in high positions resigned to protest his leadership.
“It is now clearly the will of the parliamentary Conservative party to have a new leader of that party and thus a new prime minister,” Johnson said in a statement outside Downing Street on Thursday. Addressing the people of Britain, he added: “I want you to know how sad I am to give up the best job in the world. But those are the breaks.”
But true to his political style, he couldn’t resist taking a shot at his opponents, saying he was a victim of the herd mentality. “For the past few days I have been trying to convince my colleagues that it would be eccentric to change governments when we deliver so much and when we have such a big mandate and when we are really only a handful of points behind in the polls . ” he said. “I am sorry that I did not succeed in those arguments, and of course it is painful not to be able to see through so many ideas and projects myself.”
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Born of British parents in New York, Johnson was a colorful journalist and error-prone but highly successful politician for decades. After a privileged education at Eton College and Oxford University, he joined The Times as a trainee reporter in 1987, but was fired for making up a quote.
He entered Parliament in 2001 and then served two terms as Mayor of London before returning to Westminster in 2015.
Along with his history of casual remarks, his flirtations with various women have sparked controversy throughout his years in politics. In 2004, he was kicked off the front bench of the Tory after lying about one affair and is still facing an investigation into allegations that he sent city contracts to a girlfriend while he was mayor. He has been married three times, but has had so many affairs that for years the public was not sure how many children he had fathered (at least seven).
In political terms, Mr Johnson will be best remembered for leading Britain out of the European Union. He was initially undecided on Brexit but eventually became co-leader of the ‘Yes’ campaign during the 2016 referendum. After voters narrowly approved the departure from the EU, Johnson became his party’s Brexit champion and challenged he continually took the approach of Theresa May, who had taken the lead as leader and prime minister immediately after the referendum.
Mr Johnson was behind the move that led to Ms May’s resignation in 2019. He won the ensuing leadership contest and called snap elections in December, campaigning under the slogan “Get Brexit done”. He led the Conservatives to a massive majority and reshaped the country’s political landscape by winning seats in parts of England that had never voted for Tory. At the time, some pundits said his uncanny campaigning prowess meant he might stay in office for ten years.
Then the pandemic hit, and Mr Johnson’s shortcomings became abundantly clear. He didn’t take the virus seriously at first, leaving Britain far behind when restrictions were finally necessary. And while he became seriously ill with COVID-19 and claimed he was close to dying, his impatience with lockdowns and other protective measures often extended the rise in cases.
He did orchestrate a successful vaccine rollout, but credit for that quickly faded after revelations that Downing Street staff held more than a dozen social gatherings in violation of pandemic regulations. Mr Johnson was fined £50 by police for attending a party, becoming the first sitting Prime Minister to be punished for breaking the law.
There were also other scandals. He is violating parliamentary rules by trying to make donors pay for the renovation of his Downing Street flat. He apologized for not taking allegations of sexual assault against Tory MP Chris Pincher seriously before appointing Mr Pincher as deputy head whip. And his Brexit deal with the EU has wreaked so much havoc in Northern Ireland, essentially remaining bound by the bloc’s rules, that Mr Johnson has threatened to tear up key parts of the deal.
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On the world stage, he has been a strong supporter of Ukraine and has held regular talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. He had hoped that his high-profile role in supporting Ukraine would help fend off the party uprising, but it clearly wasn’t enough.
Mr Johnson “should have gone earlier and not let the party and country be led by the chaos of the past 48 hours,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “Yes, he will be remembered for making Brexit happen. But he will also be remembered for the ridiculous and at the same time horrific manner of his departure.”
Tory MPs began turning against Johnson last month. He won a confidence vote in June, but 40 percent of his caucus voted to resign.
Since then, the pressure has increased. It finally came crashing down this week when several senior ministers – including Finance Minister Rishi Sunak and Health Minister Sajid Javid – resigned and said Mr Johnson should leave.
On Thursday, Mr Johnson said he wanted to remain in office until a new leader is elected. But as a sign of his fall from favour, a growing number of Tory MPs – including many elected in 2019 – said he should leave immediately.
Conservative MPs will now select two leadership candidates and party members will then choose the winner. The whole process is expected to take much of the summer, with a new party leader and prime minister likely in September.
There are no clear favorites, although the main contenders are Mr Sunak, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Victoria Honeyman, an associate professor of political science at the University of Leeds, said many of the frontrunners have been “vastly damaged by their loyalty to Johnson, and the longer they remained loyal, the more damage could have been done.”
However, she said that Mr Hunt and other MPs from the back seat have been actively working against Mr Johnson in recent weeks. “That said, party leadership contests are usually extraordinary,” she said. “And you never know what’s around the corner.”