Boris Johnson steps aside
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 take the country out of the European Union (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, the new favourite to succeed Cameron.
May, a party stalwart seen as a steady hand, 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 told a news conference.
“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.”
The decision to quit the EU has cost Britain its top credit rating, pushed the pound to its lowest level since the mid-1980s and wiped a record $3 trillion off global shares. EU leaders are scrambling to prevent further unravelling of a bloc that helped guarantee peace in post-war Europe.
The International Monetary Fund said on Thursday uncertainty over Brexit would hurt economic growth in Britain and the rest of Europe, and impact output globally.
Johnson, whose backing for the Leave cause was widely seen as essential to its victory, saw his leadership bid suddenly crumble after his Brexit campaign ally, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, withdrew support and announced a 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”.
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 refuses to step down. Corbyn’s party critics say his campaign to remain in the EU was half-hearted. He says he was chosen by grassroots activists and should not be pushed out.
The vacuum at the top of both major parties has added to the uncertainty at a time when Britain faces its biggest constitutional change since the dissolution of its empire in the decades after World War Two.
In addition to May and Gove, the candidates are Stephen Crabb – the cabinet minister responsible for pensions – who campaigned 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. (Reuters)