LONDON — Boris Johnson ruled himself out of running for the Conservative Party leadership Sunday, despite claiming he had the support to do so, ending a short-lived attempt to return to the British prime minister’s job he was ousted from little more than three months ago.
His withdrawal leaves former treasury chief Rishi Sunak as the strong favorite to be Britain’s next prime minister. He could win the contest as soon as Monday.
Johnson said: “I believe I am well placed to deliver a Conservative victory in 2024 — and tonight I can confirm that I have cleared the very high hurdle of 102 nominations, including a proposer and a seconder, and I could put my nomination in tomorrow.
“There is a very good chance that I would be successful in the election with Conservative Party members — and that I could indeed be back in Downing Street on Friday," he said.
“But in the course of the last days I have sadly come to the conclusion that this would simply not be the right thing to do. You can’t govern effectively unless you have a united party in Parliament.”
Johnson said that because of the failure to reach a deal with Sunak and another candidate, Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, “I am afraid the best thing is that I do not allow my nomination to go forward and commit my support to whoever succeeds.”
“I believe I have much to offer, but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time,” he said.
A little less than four months after an unprecedented ministerial rebellion ended his scandal-hit reign and he resigned in a speech outside 10 Downing Street, speculation had been rife that Johnson would once again try to win the leadership of the Conservative Party and become the U.K.'s new leader by default.
“No politician in postwar political history has ever lost the leadership of their party at the same time as losing the premiership and come back to win both,” Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, said in an email Sunday.
The party was forced to seek a new leader after Johnson's successor, Liz Truss, resigned Thursday following a disastrous economic plan, which was rapidly reversed, that sent the pound plunging and her government into chaos. She served just six weeks.
Several lawmakers had called for Johnson's return, including some of his former Cabinet colleagues, among them Ben Wallace, the defense minister, and former Home Secretary Suella Braverman.
While Mordaunt, a former defense minister, announced her candidacy last week, Johnson's stiffest competition would likely have come from Sunak, who declared his intention to run Sunday.
Both lost out to Truss in the last election; Sunak has seemingly secured the support of prominent figures on the right wing of the party this time around.
“I want to fix our economy, unite our party and deliver for our country,” Sunak, who would become the first prime minister of Indian origin if he is chosen, said in a statement. His family migrated to Britain in the 1960s, when many people from Britain’s former colonies arrived to help rebuild the country after the World War II.
Among those backing Sunak was one of Johnson’s previous backers, Steve Baker, an influential lawmaker on the right of the party.
“This isn’t the time for Boris’s style,” Baker told Sky News on Sunday, adding that Johnson still faces an investigation into whether he misled Parliament over Downing Street parties during Covid-19 lockdowns.
He could be forced to resign or be suspended from office if he is found guilty, which Baker said would be “a guaranteed disaster.”
Others have pointed out that Johnson's three years as prime minister were plagued by scandals; he was eventually forced to step down after more than 50 members of his government, including Sunak, resigned.
They quit amid allegations that Johnson failed to come clean about a lawmaker who was appointed to a senior position despite claims of sexual misconduct.
Former Conservative Party leader William Hague said Friday that Johnson’s return would lead to a “death spiral” for the party.
Whoever wins will have to get nominations from 100 of the 357 Conservative lawmakers by Monday, meaning a maximum field of three.
If two candidates secure such support, they will go forward to a vote of the party members, with the winner announced Friday.
Supporters of Johnson, including Foreign Minister James Cleverly and former Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, see him as a vote-winner, able to appeal across the country with his celebrity image and brand of energetic optimism. His backers say he can get the 100 members of Parliament required to get on the ballot.
But Anand Menon, a professor of politics and foreign affairs at Kings College London, said: “There is a tendency, not least amongst his supporters but also in parts of the media, to exaggerate Boris Johnson’s electoral appeal.
“A significant majority of the British people wanted him to resign as prime minister, and his approval ratings were historically low by the time he stopped being prime minister,” he said. “So this idea that Boris is uniquely popular, I think is not necessarily true.”
Bale was more forthright and less generous about Johnson's prospects.
“Returning Boris Johnson would seem to most British people as yet another sick joke played on the country by the Conservative Party in the last few months — and not one many of them would find in the slightest bit funny,” he said.