British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s political career has been defined by a remarkable ability to overcome scandals and blunders that would ruin almost any other politician. But he couldn’t defy the political odds forever, and in the end his bluster and missteps finally took their toll, culminating in his resignation as Conservative Party Leader.
Nevertheless, after weeks of controversy and a pair of crushing Conservative losses in recent by-elections, Mr. Johnson did not go quietly. He resisted stepping down for days and only relented after more than 50 cabinet ministers, parliamentary secretaries and other Conservative MPs in senior positions quit to protest his leadership.
“It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore a new prime minister,” Mr. Johnson said Thursday in a statement outside Downing Street. Addressing the people of Britain, he added: “I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world. But them’s the breaks.”
True to his political style, though, he couldn’t resist taking a shot at his detractors and said he was a victim of herd mentality. “In the last few days I have tried to persuade my colleagues that it would be eccentric to change governments when we are delivering so much and when we have such a vast mandate and when we are actually only a handful of points behind in the polls,” he said. “I regret not to have been successful in those arguments, and of course it is painful not to be able to see through so many ideas and projects myself.”
Born to British parents in New York, Mr. Johnson spent decades as a colourful journalist and an error-prone, but highly successful, politician. After a privileged education at Eton College and Oxford University, he joined The Times as a trainee reporter in 1987, only to be 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.
Together with his history of off-the-cuff remarks, his dalliances with several women have sparked controversy throughout his years in politics. In 2004 he was kicked off the Tory front bench after lying about one affair and is still facing a probe into allegations that he steered 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 wasn’t sure how many children he’d fathered (at least seven).
In political terms, Mr. Johnson will be best remembered for leading Britain out of the European Union. He was undecided about Brexit at first but eventually became co-leader of the “Yes” campaign during the 2016 referendum. After voters narrowly approved leaving the EU, Mr. Johnson became his party’s Brexit champion and constantly challenged the approach of Theresa May, who had taken over as leader and prime minister immediately after the referendum.
Mr. Johnson was behind the movement that led to Ms. May’s resignation in 2019. He won the subsequent leadership contest and called a snap election that December, campaigning on the slogan “Get Brexit done.” He led the Conservatives to a massive majority and reshaped the country’s political landscape by winning seats in areas of England that had never voted Tory. At the time, some pundits said his uncanny campaigning ability meant he might remain in office for a decade.
Then the pandemic struck, and Mr. Johnson’s failings became glaring. He did not take the virus seriously at first, putting Britain far behind when restrictions were finally necessary. And even though he became severely ill with COVID-19 and claimed he almost died, his impatience with lockdowns and other protective measures often prolonged the upsurge in cases.
He did orchestrate a successful vaccine rollout, but credit for that quickly dissipated amid revelations that Downing Street staff held more than a dozen social gatherings in violation of pandemic regulations. Mr. Johnson was fined £50 (about $78) by police for attending one party, making him the first sitting prime minister to be sanctioned for breaking the law.
There were other scandals, too. He ran afoul of parliamentary rules by trying to get donors to pay for renovations to his Downing Street flat. He apologized for not taking sexual-assault allegations against Tory MP Chris Pincher seriously before appointing Mr. Pincher as deputy chief whip. And his Brexit deal with the EU has caused so much havoc in Northern Ireland, which has remained effectively bound by the bloc’s rules, that Mr. Johnson has threatened to tear up key parts of the agreement.
On the global stage, he has been a strong supporter of Ukraine and has held regular calls with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. He’d hoped his high-profile role in backing Ukraine would help fend off the party rebellion, but it obviously wasn’t enough.
Mr. Johnson “should have gone earlier and not put the party and the country through the chaos of the last 48 hours,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “Yes he’ll be remembered for getting Brexit done. But he’ll also be remembered for the ridiculous and at the same time appalling manner of his departure.”
Tory MPs had begun to turn on Mr. Johnson last month. He won a confidence vote in June, but 40 per cent of his caucus voted for him to resign.
Since then, the pressure has been building. It finally came crashing down this week when several senior cabinet ministers – including chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid – resigned and said Mr. Johnson had to go.
On Thursday, Mr. Johnson said he wanted to remain in office until a new leader has been chosen. But in a sign of his fall from grace, 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 entire process is expected to take much of the summer, with a new party leader and prime minister likely in place by September.
There are no clear favourites, though top contenders include Mr. Sunak, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Victoria Honeyman, an associate professor of politics at the University of Leeds, said many of the front-runners “have been hugely damaged by their allegiance to Johnson, and the longer they stayed loyal, the more damage may have been done.”
However, she said, Mr. Hunt and other backbench MPs could be seen as having actively worked against Mr. Johnson in the past few weeks. “All that being said, party leadership contests are usually extraordinary,” she said. “And you never know what is coming around the corner.”