After a string of scandals and controversies in his three-year term in office, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday agreed to step down from the post of the Conservative Party leader. The move is set to end an unprecedented political crisis and trigger an election for a Tory leader who will go on to become the new premier. Johnson, 58, will remain in charge at 10 Downing Street until the process of electing a new leader is completed by the time of the Conservative Party conference, scheduled for October. He is expected to formally announce his resignation and address the nation later on Thursday.
High drama on Downing Street
The move came after days of high drama and a steady stream of resignations from his Cabinet since Tuesday and just minutes after his newly appointed Chancellor to replace former Chancellor Rishi Sunak wrote a public letter calling for him to “go now”. Nadhim Zahawi, the Iraqi-origin minister seen as a frontrunner to replace Johnson in 10 Downing Street, wrote a damning letter that openly questioned his boss’ authority and demanded his exit. While not officially resigning from his new Cabinet post, the 55-year-old minister said the time was up for Johnson.
His demand followed over 50 resignations since Johnson’s apology on Tuesday, after days of changing messages from Downing Street over the hiring and handling of the now-suspended Chris Pincher, who quit as Deputy Chief Whip in charge of Tory party discipline last week after admitting drunken misconduct.
Johnson's tenure as PM was marred by his inconsistent handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a steady stream of ethics allegations, from alcohol-fueled government parties that broke lockdown rules to how he handled a sexual misconduct scandal involving a senior party lawmaker. The resignation comes in the wake of several scandals including the latest "Partygate" scandal involving Covid law-breaking parties in Downing Street, which had resulted in a no-confidence vote last month which Johnson just about survived.
A look at the political career of Boris Johnson and his biggest controversies
One of the biggest highlights of Johnson's career before becoming Prime Minister came in when he served as the Mayor of London (2008-2016), during which time he pulled off the 2012 Olympic Games that were hosted in UK.
In 2016, Johnson became the co-leader of the Brexit campaign to take Britain out of the European Union, in opposition to then-Prime Minister David Cameron, a fellow Conservative. Cameron resigned after voters approved Brexit in a national referendum on June 23, 2016. Johnson eventually got elected as the head of the Conservative party and led the Conservatives to a thumping election victory on the back of his promise to “get Brexit done.”
After a series of hiccups in the Brexit process, Johnson won an 80-seat majority in the general election in December 2019, giving him the backing to push through Brexit legislation. The victory made Johnson the most electorally successful Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher. On Jan. 23, 2020, the Brexit deal became law after approval by UK Parliament. European Parliament approved the deal six days later.
The Paterson dilemma
In November 2021, Johnson’s government ordered Conservative lawmakers to support a change in ethics rules to delay the suspension of Owen Paterson, a Johnson supporter who had been censured for breaching lobbying rules. The measure was passed but Johnson reversed course and allowed lawmakers to vote on Paterson’s suspension a day later following angry backlash from lawmakers of all parties. Paterson eventually resigned but the incident left question marks on Johnson's ethicality.
The "Partygate" scandal refers to allegations that surfaced In November 2021, soon after the Paterson debacle regarding government officials attending parties in government offices during November and December 2020 in violation of Covid-19 lockdown rules. More than a dozen such parties were reported. Johnson denied the allegations, but opposition leaders criticized the government for breaking the law at a time when people across the country made sacrifices to combat the pandemic.
In December, Johnson authorized probe into the Partygate scandal, and eventually fined 50 pounds ($63) in April 2022 for attending one of the lockdown parties. Opposition parties characterize him as the first U.K. prime minister in history shown to have broken the law while in office. Johnson apologizes but insisted he didn’t know he was breaking the rules. Findings of the “Partygate” investigation detailed 16 gatherings at Johnson’s home and office and other government offices between May 2020 and April 2021. The report noted excessive drinking among some of Johnson’s staff, at a time when millions of people were unable to see friends and family.
Inflation increased 6.2 per cent in the 12 months through February, a 30-year high, in the UK. The spike was driven by rising prices of energy, goods and food and comes as the Bank of England has raised interest rates three times since December to try to cool off inflation.In March this year, the government announced a mid-year spending plan that was widely criticized for doing too little to help people struggling with the soaring cost of living. Treasury chief Rishi Sunak refused to delay a planned income tax increase or impose a windfall profits tax on oil and gas companies benefiting from rising energy prices. In May, the government reversed course on its tax decision on oil and gas companies and announced plans for a 25 per cent windfall profits levy. The policy fluctuations caused intense outcry among Opposition leaders as well as loss of confidence among general population.
In June this year, Chris Pincher resigned as the Conservative deputy chief whip after allegedly sexually assaulting two fellow guests at a private members’ club in London in a state of intoxication. Previous sexual misconduct allegations emerged against Pincher, raising questions on whether Johnson knew about the claims when Pincher was given the job. Earlier in July, Johnson apologized for his handling of the Pincher scandal and said he had forgotten about being told of the allegations. Two of Johnson’s most senior Cabinet ministers, Treasury chief Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, quit the government.
Johnson's resignation will now trigger a fierce leadership battle within the Conservative Party. The 1922 Committee is responsible for setting the timetable for a Tory leadership contest. To take part in the race, a Tory MP has to be nominated by eight colleagues. If more than two MPs put themselves forward and secure enough nominations to run for leader, a series of secret ballots are held to whittle them down.
(With inputs from Associated Press, PTI)