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Boris Johnson resigns as UK PM but stays in power until a successor is chosen

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By Euronews
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to media next to 10 Downing Street in London, Thursday, July 7, 2022.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to media next to 10 Downing Street in London, Thursday, July 7, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his resignation Thursday after droves of top government officials quit over the latest scandal to engulf him, marking an end to three tumultuous years in which he tried to brazen out one ethical lapse after another with a combination of charm, bluster and denial.

Months of defiance ended almost with a shrug as Johnson stood outside 10 Downing Street, and conceded that his party wanted him gone.

“Them’s the breaks,” he said.

The brash, 58-year-old politician who took Britain out of the European Union and steered a rough path through the COVID pandemic was brought down by one scandal too many - this one involving his appointment of a politician who had been accused of sexual misconduct.

The messiest of prime ministers did not leave cleanly. Johnson stepped down immediately as Conservative Party leader but said he would remain as prime minister until the party chooses his successor. The timetable for that process will be announced next week. The last leadership contest took six weeks.

On Thursday, opposition leader Keir Starmer from the Labour Party called for Johnson to go immediately, threatening a vote of no confidence if he stayed in office until a new leader was chosen.

A number of British media outlets reported Thursday that Johnson has planned a lavish wedding reception for his wife Carrie at Chequers, the official country residence of British prime ministers, and this was one reason why he was unwilling to step down straight away. 

However many senior Conservative politicians would like to see him go immediately, and some have expressed concern he could do mischief even as a caretaker prime minister.

“It’s very difficult to see how Boris Johnson, given the character that he is, is going to be able to govern for three months in quiet humility and contrition," said George Freeman, who resigned as science minister on Thursday.

Among the possible candidates to succeed Johnson: former Health Secretary Sajid Javid, former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace.

What did Boris Johnson say in his resignation speech?

"I've agreed with Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of our backbench MPs, that the process of choosing that new leader should begin now and the timetable will be announced next week. And I've today appointed a Cabinet to serve, as I will, until a new leader is in place."

What has been some of the reaction in Europe?

There was little love lost between Boris Johnson and a number of prominent EU figures, who wasted little time taking to social media to comment on the British PM's resignation.

Dutch MEP Guy Verhofstadt said "Johnson's reign ends in disgrace, just like his friend Donald Trump", adding that relations between the EU and UK had "suffered hugely with Johnson's choice of Brexit."

Manfred Weber said the EU must insist on the "full implementation" of the Northern Ireland protocol; while former EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said he hope there could now be a more respectful and constructive relationship with the UK especially when it came to Northern Ireland.

Even the Kremlin got a dig in at Johnson, saying they hoped "more professional people" would come to power in Britain. 

A record number of resignations

Johnson had been defiant in his refusal to step down on Wednesday, despite finding himself in the dubious position of having the most ministerial resignations in a single day of any prime minister in British history.

The first resignations came on Tuesday night within minutes of each other as Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and health minister Sajid Javid released apparently coordinated statements saying they couldn't continue to give Johnson their support.

Wednesday started with a slew of other resignations of less prominent MPs, and by mid-afternoon, there had been at least 26 in total: including the initial two cabinet ministers, ministers, principal private secretaries, trade envoys and a vice chair of the Conservative Party.

That total had climbed to 42 resignations by Wednesday evening. 

One batch of ministers didn't even write individual letters when they stepped down, five of them just added their signatures to a group message for Johnson.

On Thursday there were further ministerial resignations, with new Education Secretary Michelle Donelan quitting just one day into the job. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis quit too, keeping the pressure on Johnson.

Then Nadhim Zahawi, appointed as Chancellor of the Exchequer just two days ago to replace Sunak, told Johnson he should quit.

What's the background to the latest crisis?

So what has triggered this latest political crisis in the UK for Johnson's government - which seems to have lurched from one scandal to another in the last six months?

At the heart of it is how Downing Street handled the issue of Chris Pincher, an MP who quit his post after admitting to being drunk and groping two men in a private London club.

Johnson appointed him as deputy chief whip earlier this year, despite being aware of misconduct allegations against him.

Some MPs said they were frustrated that 10 Downing Street couldn't get its story straight about what Boris Johnson knew, and when, and were undermined by doing media interviews to back up the PM's position only to have it change within an hour or two.

An astonishing letter from the former head of Britain's diplomatic service laid out very clearly that Johnson had known in far more detail than he'd admitted, historical complaints against Chris Pincher when Johnson was British foreign minister, and Pincher was a minister in the same department.

Minutes before the resignations of Javid and Sunak were announced, Johnson said Pincher should have been fired from the government after a previous 2019 incident.

Asked if it was an error to appoint Pincher to the government, Johnson said: “I think it was a mistake and I apologise for it. In hindsight, it was the wrong thing to do."