LONDON — Boris Johnson resigned on Thursday as leader of Britain's Conservative party, paving the way for the selection of a new prime minister after dozens of ministers quit his government over 48 hours of frenzied political drama.
"It is clearly the will of the parliamentary Conservative party that there should be a new leader of that party, and therefore a new prime minister," Johnson said outside 10 Downing Street.
The timetable for a Tory leadership race will be announced next week, he said, after 3 tumultuous years in office defined by Brexit, the Covid pandemic and non-stop controversy over his reputation for mendacity.
Johnson, 58, said he would stay on as prime minister until a replacement is found.
He had fought hard against a cabinet revolt and said he was "sad... to be giving up the best job in the world", justifying fighting on in the final hours to deliver the mandate he won in a Brexit-dominated general election in December 2019.
"And let me say now, to the people of Ukraine, that I know that we in the UK will continue to back your fight for freedom for as long as it takes," he added in his 6-minute address.
Ukraine's presidency thanked Johnson for his support in "the hardest times".
Johnson's few remaining allies in the Tory party stood adjacent alongside wife Carrie, carrying their baby daughter Romy.
The Conservative leadership election will take place over the summer and the victor will replace Johnson by the party's annual conference in early October, the BBC and others reported.
Defence minister Ben Wallace and Rishi Sunak, whose departure as finance minister on Tuesday sparked the cabinet exodus, were among the early frontrunners to succeed Johnson, according to a YouGov survey of Conservative party members.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, another potential contender, said Johnson had "made the right decision" as she cut short a trip to Indonesia for a G20 meeting.
"We need calmness and unity now and to keep governing while a new leader is found," she tweeted.
But in the highly charged hours building up to Johnson's announcement, opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer had said the country cannot wait.
Starmer said "a proper change of government" was needed and demanded a no-confidence vote in parliament, potentially triggering a general election, rather than Johnson "clinging on for months and months".
Even while eyeing the exit, Johnson had earlier Thursday sought to steady the ship with several appointments to replace the departed cabinet members.
They included Greg Clark, an arch "remainer" opposed to Britain's divorce from the European Union, which Johnson had championed.
Shailesh Vara, who has never served in the cabinet, was put in charge of Northern Ireland, with the government locked in battle with Brussels over post-Brexit trading rules for the tense territory.
'ARROGANT AND DELUSIONAL'
Johnson had been clinging on to power despite a wave of more than 50 government resignations, expressing defiance late Wednesday.
But Thursday's departure of education minister Michelle Donelan and a plea to quit from finance minister Nadhim Zahawi, only in their jobs for 2 days, appeared to tip the balance along with warnings of a new no-confidence vote by Tory MPs.
Johnson triumphed in 2019 with a vow to "get Brexit done" following Britain's shock referendum decision 3 years prior. But for many, the populist, convention-defying leader had outstayed his welcome.
The Conservative infighting erupted at a time when millions of Britons are battling the worst slump in living standards since the 1950s, fueling by rocketing energy prices on back of the war in Ukraine.
Before the economic crisis, Johnson's popularity had already slumped over a series of lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street, which saw him become the first prime minister to receive a police fine.
"About time, isn't it? Seriously, I mean have you ever known anyone be so arrogant, ignorant, delusional?" Helen Dewdney, 53, who works in consumer rights, told AFP.
Referring to the departed cabinet ministers, she said: "Where was their integrity months ago?"
While Johnson oversaw a successful vaccine campaign against the coronavirus pandemic, the former journalist also oversaw one of Europe's worst death tolls, and nearly died himself from COVID in April 2020.
'POINT OF NO RETURN'
"Boris Johnson's legacy is the deaths of nearly 200,000 British people on his watch," said Lobby Akinnola, from the campaign group COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice.
"Whilst Johnson will move on to a life of writing newspaper columns and being paid eye-watering amounts to give after-dinner speeches, there will be no moving on for the families like mine that have been ripped apart by his actions," he said.
Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis on Thursday became the fourth cabinet minister to resign and wrote that Johnson was "past the point of no return".
Johnson late on Wednesday had sacked minister Michael Gove, with a Downing Street source describing his former Brexit right-hand-man as a "snake" in the media.
Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid quit late Tuesday after Johnson apologized for his February appointment of senior Conservative MP Chris Pincher as deputy chief whip.
Pincher was forced to step down following accusations he drunkenly groped 2 men.
Days of shifting explanations followed the resignation, before Downing Street finally conceded that Johnson had known about Pincher's behavior as far back as 2019.
Tory critics said the Pincher affair had tipped many over the edge, angry at having to defend what they saw as more lies by Johnson over his appointment of what Starmer called a "sexual predator".
© Agence France-Presse