Having spearheaded Britain’s surprise exit from the EU, Conservative politician Boris Johnson delivered a further bombshell Thursday when he announced he would not be running to replace outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron.
Living up to his reputation as a political maverick, the former London mayor — who had been widely considered the favorite to take Cameron’s job — told a shocked room full of journalists in London that he would not be entering the race.
After outlining the demands of the role over the course of a lengthy speech, Johnson announced: “Having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in Parliament, I have concluded that that person cannot be me.”
The charismatic Conservative MP and former London mayor played a decisive role in the campaign to lead Britain out of the European Union — an endeavor many saw as partly an effort to position himself as the future leader of the ruling Conservative Party, and of the country.
The announcement drew a stunned response from social media, where it was met with disbelief and anger.
Since the unexpected Leave vote sent the pound tumbling, hurt global markets and inspired renewed talk of Scottish independence, many have seen Britain as a casualty of Johnson’s now-thwarted leadership ambitions.
“I am very surprised #BorisJohnson ran the campaign to get us out of the EU and didn’t have the guts to re-establish the country! Odd move,” tweeted entrepreneur Mark Wright.
Wright said that Johnson cannot have truly wanted a Brexit. “He wanted a close race to show campaign leadership skills for a PM move later on. At what cost to us(?),” he tweeted.
Labour MP Jo Stevens responded with disgust, describing Johnson as “narcissism personified.”
“Cameron & #BorisJohnson wrecked the UK. And now neither will take any responsibility,” she tweeted.
CNN political contributor Robin Oakley said that “undoubtedly (people are) going to feel let down that he’s not standing,” adding that he had spoken to many people who had voted Leave due to the campaigning of Johnson, the larger-than-life former journalist.
“Something’s gone badly wrong here,” Oakley said, referring to the apparent split between Johnson and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who had campaigned closely together in leading the Leave camp.
In a surprise move ahead of Johnson’s announcement, Gove announced that he himself had decided to run for the leadership, after concluding that Johnson “cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.”
Gove, who was previously education secretary from 2010 to 2015, was the leading Leave campaigner within Cameron’s Cabinet.
Johnson’s decision means that five Conservative MPs will compete to replace Cameron, who announced his intention to resign after narrowly losing his campaign to persuade voters to remain in the EU in the national referendum last week.
They include three Cabinet ministers: Gove, Home Secretary Theresa May and Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb. Former defense secretary Liam Fox and Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom are also running.
May: Unity needed
May, Britain’s internal affairs chief since 2010, was expected to be the main rival to Johnson for the Conservative leadership, said Oakley. A Euroskeptic who voted Remain, she and Gove now appear to be the frontrunners to be Britain’s next PM.
Announcing her candidacy at an event in central London Thursday, she said post-referendum Britain needed “strong, proven leadership to steer us through this period of economic and political uncertainty and to negotiate the best possible terms as we leave the European Union.”
“We need leadership that can unite our party and our country,” she said.
“With the Labour Party tearing itself to pieces and divisive nationalists in Scotland and Wales, it is nothing less than the patriotic duty of our party to unite and govern in the best interest of the whole country.”
Gove had campaigned closely with Johnson for a Brexit, but said he had decided to run himself after concluding that Johnson “cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.”
Crabb, a Cabinet minister and MP for the Welsh electorate of Preseli Pembrokeshire, announced his leadership ambitions at a news conference on Wednesday.
“On the rainy rugby fields of west Wales I learned that it’s not a question of waiting for the ball to pop out the back of the scrum — if you want it, you do what’s required and you get your hands on it,” said Crabb, who supported the Remain campaign.
MP Liam Fox, the former defense secretary who resigned from the government in 2011, put his hat into the ring Wednesday, while Leadsom announced her candidacy via Twitter Thursday. Both MPs supported the Leave vote.
“Delighted to say I’m running for the @Conservatives Leadership. Let’s make the most of the Brexit opportunities! #FreshStart,” she wrote.
Conservative MPs who wished to contest the leadership had until noon local time (7 a.m. ET) to declare their run.
Opposition in turmoil
The referendum result sent shockwaves through the British political establishment, leaving the leadership of both major parties up for grabs as the country faces an uncertain future.
The opposition Labour Party is also in turmoil, with leader Jeremy Corbyn facing a coup from his own MPs amid criticisms he campaigned poorly to keep Britain in the EU. Corbyn has weathered a mass of defections from his leadership team and overwhelmingly lost a no-confidence vote by Labour MPs Tuesday, but is refusing to resign.
He is expected to face a formal challenge from his MPs once a rival leadership candidate is chosen.
In a fiery exchange Wednesday in the first Parliamentary session since the referendum, Cameron told Corbyn that he should step down “in the national interest.”
“It might be in my party’s interest for him to sit there. It’s not in the national interest, and I would say, for heaven’s sake man, go.”
May: ‘No second referendum’
Amid the post-referendum turmoil, members of the public, as well as MPs, have called for a second, do-over referendum before the government formally begins the process of leaving the European Union.
But although she campaigned to remain, May said Thursday that there could be no revisiting the vote.
“Brexit means Brexit. The campaign was fought. The vote was held. Turnout was high, and the public gave their verdict,” she said.
“There may be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door. And no second referendum.”