LONDON — Former London mayor Boris Johnson, favourite to become Britain’s prime minister, abruptly pulled out of the race on Thursday, upending the contest less than a week after leading the campaign to pull the country out of the EU.
Johnson’s announcement, to audible gasps from a roomful of journalists and supporters, was the biggest political surprise since Prime Minister David Cameron quit on Friday, the morning after losing the referendum on British membership in the bloc.
It makes Theresa May, the interior minister who backed remaining in the European Union (EU), the new favourite to succeed Cameron.
May, a party stalwart seen as a steady hand by financial markets, announced her own candidacy earlier on Thursday, promising to deliver the withdrawal from the EU voters had demanded, despite having campaigned for the other side.
“Brexit means Brexit,” she said. “The campaign was fought, the vote was held, turnout was high and the public gave their verdict. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door and no second referendum.”
Johnson, whose support for the Leave cause was widely seen as essential to its victory, saw his bid suddenly crumble after his Brexit campaign ally, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, withdrew his backing and announced a leadership bid of his own.
“I must tell you, my friends, you who have waited faithfully for the punchline of this speech, that having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me,” Johnson said at the close of his speech at a London luxury hotel.
The bombshell stunned supporters gathered for what they thought would be the first speech of his leadership campaign.
Johnson began by hailing a “moment for hope and ambition for Britain, a time not to fight against the tide of history but to take that tide at the flood and sail on to fortune”.
But by the time he spoke his bid had already been undermined by Gove, a close friend of Cameron’s despite differences with the prime minister over Europe, who had previously said he would back Johnson.
In an article on Thursday in the Spectator, a magazine Johnson used to edit, Gove wrote that he had come “reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead”.
Conservative MPs said Johnson may have been undone by supporters of Cameron exacting revenge for his decision to defy the prime minister and back the Leave campaign.
“He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword,” said one MP, describing internal party conflict on condition of anonymity. The MP said Johnson had realised his bid would fail after others defected from his campaign overnight.
Johnson is the latest political casualty of a civil war in the ruling party unleashed by Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum on membership in the EU, an issue that divided the Conservatives for decades and now divides the country.
‘Not A Game’
Known for a jokey public persona and a mop of unkempt blonde hair, Johnson became a popular national figure during eight years as London mayor, and used his charm to aid the Leave cause after deciding only late in the day to push for Brexit.
But in the week since his side won, several leading Conservatives questioned whether Johnson had the gravitas to run tough talks to mend the broken relationship with the EU.
In an article in the Times newspaper, May took aim at Johnson’s persona by saying government was not “a game”.
She also appealed to the working classes, many of whom voted to leave the EU in protest at an elite who, they say, failed to cushion their lives from increasing competition.
Britain’s new prime minister faces a huge task to unite the party and country, and persuade the EU to offer some kind of deal — balancing the desire expressed by voters to reduce immigration with London’s hope to maintain access to EU markets.
EU leaders have said Britain cannot keep open access to the common market unless it allows free movement of people.
A new British leader will also need to reassure financialmarkets, which have plummeted since the referendum. The pound briefly rose after Johnson’s announcement.
“The market reaction was that it makes Theresa May ashoo-in, which is less confrontational, less damaging,” said Marc Ostwald, strategist at ADM Investor Services.
But some Conservative lawmakers said it was still too early to crown May. Conservative members of parliament will first narrow a field of five candidates down to two, and then party members will elect the leader by Sept. 9.
In addition to May and Gove, the candidates are Stephen Crabb, the cabinet minister responsible for pensions, whocampaigned to stay in the EU, and two pro-Brexit figures, Liam Fox, a right-wing former defence secretary, and Andrea Leadsom, a minister in the energy department.
Leadsom suggested the next prime minister should come from the Brexit camp. Crabb, who like May has vowed to carry out Brexit despite having opposed it, has said control over immigration should be a red line in talks with the EU.
The main opposition Labour Party also faces an acrimonious leadership battle, with lawmakers having overwhelmingly voted to withdraw confidence in left-wing party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who nevertheless refuses to step down.
Corbyn’s critics within the party say his campaign to remain in the EU was half-hearted, and the country needs a stronger opposition leader at such a tumultuous time. He says he was chosen by grassroots activists and should not be pushed out by politicians.