LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's announcement Thursday that he would resign ends a tumultuous tenure that began on a wave of Brexit enthusiasm, but crashed on a series of scandals and an internal revolt that sparked a political crisis.
Facing public distrust and mounting discontent in his own party and government, Johnson had defiantly sought to cling to power. He finally said he would quit after a crushing number of his own lawmakers moved to topple their once-talismanic leader, saying he was no longer fit to govern just a month after he survived a vote of confidence.
“Them’s the breaks,” a rueful but unrepentant Johnson said in a speech outside his No. 10 Downing St. home and office that capped days of drama and was met with boos. "As we’ve seen at Westminster," he said, referring to the central London area where Parliament is located, "the herd instinct is powerful and when the herd moves, it moves."
Johnson's decision to step down as the leader of the ruling Conservative Party will trigger a leadership race, with the winner set to become the United Kingdom's fourth prime minister in the six years since the June 2016 Brexit referendum. Johnson said he planned to remain in office until a successor is chosen — a move that faced immediate opposition from others in an increasingly hostile Parliament.
Johnson, 58, has always been a divisive figure, but his popularity among Conservative Party lawmakers and members had until now largely withstood the twin stresses of Covid and Brexit during his two-and-a-half-year leadership. Britain is also grappling with a cost-of-living crisis and the challenges of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
It was not until revelations of alcohol-fueled parties Johnson and his aides held during pandemic lockdowns that his political fortunes truly turned and his rule-defying insouciance, once a superpower, became his political kryptonite.
Months of fury over the scandal, known in the U.K. as "partygate," sent poll ratings for Johnson and his party plummeting. He and his wife were booed as they arrived for a Platinum Jubilee event last month.
Johnson narrowly survived a vote of confidence among his own lawmakers, leaving him damaged but still in power and his party bitterly divided. But within weeks, another scandal forced a lawmaker to step down from his senior role involving party discipline and welfare amid sexual misconduct allegations.
Even some who had said they personally liked and respected Johnson felt that the latest scandals and the shifting explanations over his handling of them were too much.
“It’s very sad but I’m relieved that he has stood down,” John Baron, a lawmaker from eastern England, told NBC News on Thursday. “I just wish we hadn’t been through these last few days. It must have been painful for his family and certainly painful for the country to watch.”
Even as the stream of ministers abandoning his government turned to a flood, Johnson initially refused to give in to what seemed an undeniable political reality.
“Any other PM wouldn’t have put their colleagues and country through the chaos of the last 48 hours,” Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, said. “To the extent that Johnson refused to face up to reality for longer than any rational, democratic politician would have, that really was unprecedented.”
Hailed by some commentators as a scruffy colossus remaking British politics, Johnson’s abrupt fall from grace will see him leave office with his reputation in tatters and his country facing a precarious moment.
The opposition Labour Party — led by former lawyer Keir Starmer, whose prosecutorial style is the antithesis of the deliberately ragged Johnson — has opened a commanding lead over the Conservatives in the polls. But the next general election is not scheduled until 2024, and a new Tory leader could upend things again.
It is a remarkable downfall for a man who defied doubters to strike the Brexit deal with the European Union before winning an electoral landslide in 2019 and promising sweeping reforms for a country that has spent years mired in division and dysfunction.
Johnson claimed big victories in rolling out Covid vaccines and lifting pandemic restrictions faster than many other nations. But in recent months, his administration has been dogged by the string of scandals and fumbles. His government has also faced criticism over plans to override its own Brexit deal in relation to Northern Ireland and its policy of sending asylum-seekers to Rwanda.
Born in New York City and educated at Eton College and Oxford University, Johnson was fired by the British newspaper The Times in 1987 for making up a quote. And once elected to Parliament, he was dismissed from a senior position in his party in 2004 after rumors surfaced of an affair with a journalist.
He has seven children: four with his ex-wife, Marina Wheeler, one during an affair with art consultant Helen Macintyre, and two with his wife, Carrie Johnson. Until recently he had refused to confirm exactly how many offspring he had.
Johnson served as the mayor of London from 2008 to 2016, winning fans across the political spectrum with his socially liberal approach and flamboyant, zip-wire charm. He was a celebrity politician even before that, his deliberately disheveled style setting him apart from his more conventional peers.
He led the “Leave” campaign in the 2016 referendum and won the 2019 election by flipping a slew of traditional working class Labour Party seats in the midlands and the north, the so-called Red Wall, to deliver the party’s biggest majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987.
Less than three years later, his tenure is at its end after one scandal too many.