Boris Johnson's Exit from Parliament Leaves UK Politics Reeling
Jill Lawless READ TIME: 4 MIN.
Former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson left chaos in his wake Saturday after quitting Parliament with a blast at fellow lawmakers he accused of ousting him in a "witch hunt."
As opponents jeered, the Conservative government absorbed the shock of yet another Johnson earthquake, while a band of loyal supporters insisted Britain's divisive ex-leader could still make a comeback. Two Johnson allies joined him in quitting the House of Commons, piling pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Less than a year after he was forced out as prime minister by his own Conservative Party, Johnson unexpectedly stepped down as a lawmaker late Friday – "at least for now," he said in a self-justifying resignation statement.
Johnson quit after being told he will be sanctioned for misleading Parliament over "partygate," a series of rule-breaking gatherings in the prime minister's office during the coronavirus pandemic. Johnson was among scores of people fined by police over late-night soirees, boozy parties and "wine time Fridays" that broke restrictions the government had imposed on the country.
Johnson has acknowledged misleading Parliament when he assured lawmakers that no rules had been broken, but he said he didn't do so deliberately, genuinely believing the gatherings were legitimate work events.
A standards committee investigating him appears to see things differently. Johnson quit after receiving the report of the Privileges Committee, which has not yet been made public. Johnson faced suspension from the House of Commons if the committee found he had lied deliberately.
Johnson, 58, called the committee "a kangaroo court" that was determined to "drive me out of Parliament."
"Their purpose from the beginning has been to find me guilty, regardless of the facts," Johnson said.
The committee, which has a majority Conservative membership, said Johnson had "impugned the integrity" of the House of Commons with his attack. It said it would meet Monday "to conclude the inquiry and to publish its report promptly."
The resignation will trigger a special election to replace Johnson as a lawmaker for a suburban London seat in the House of Commons. Two allies of Johnson, Nadine Dorries and Nigel Adams, also quit, sparking three near-simultaneous by-elections – an unwanted headache for Sunak.
Johnson is a charismatic and erratic figure whose career has seen a series of scandals and comebacks. The rumpled, Latin-spouting populist with a mop of blond hair has held major offices but also spent periods on the political sidelines before Britain's exit from the European Union propelled him to the top.
A champion of Brexit, Johnson led the Conservatives to a landslide victory in 2019 and took Britain out of the EU the following year. But he became mired in scandals over his ethics and judgment, and was forced out as prime minister by his own party in mid-2022.
By quitting Parliament, he avoids a suspension that could have seen him ousted from his Commons seat by his constituents, leaving him free to run for Parliament again in future. His resignation statement suggested he was mulling that option. It was highly critical of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who served as Treasury chief in Johnson's government before jumping ship with many other colleagues in July 2022 – resignations that forced Johnson out as prime minister.
Conservative poll ratings went into decline during the turbulent final months of Johnson's term and have not recovered. Opinion polls regularly put the opposition Labour Party 20 points or more ahead. A national election must be held by the end of 2024.
"Just a few years after winning the biggest majority in almost half a century, that majority is now clearly at risk," Johnson said in a statement that sounded like a leadership pitch. "Our party needs urgently to recapture its sense of momentum and its belief in what this country can do."
Johnson allies expressed hope that the former prime minister was not finished. Conservative lawmaker John Redwood said Johnson "has made it very clear that he doesn't regard this as the end of his involvement in British politics."
But many others questioned whether a politician who has often seemed to defy political gravity could make yet another comeback.
Others compared Johnson to Donald Trump, who has similarly claimed persecution by a host of enemies after being indicted on federal charges over his hoarding of classified documents after leaving office.
"It all feels very Trumpian," said Will Walden, who worked for Johnson when he was mayor of London and U.K. foreign secretary.
"He has one song to play, and that is 'I was robbed,'" Walden told Sky News.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said Johnson often drew inspiration from his political hero, Winston Churchill, who led Britain to victory in World War II only to be ousted from power in 1945 – and then to return to office several years later.
"I believe that he thinks that he can spend some time in ... the wilderness before the Conservative Party and the country calls upon him once again in its hour of need," Bale said.
"Frankly, I think that is unlikely. I think partygate has ensured that he is toxic as far as many voters are concerned. And I think the way he has behaved over the last two or three days – and some people will say over the last two or three years – probably means that most of his colleagues would rather he disappeared in a puff of smoke."