Boris Johnson drops out of race for UK PM

LONDON — Boris Johnson pulled out of the race to succeed Liz Truss as Britain’s prime minister on Sunday evening, ending a quixotic bid to reclaim a job he lost three months ago amid a cascade of scandals, and leaving his rival, Rishi Sunak, in a dominant position to be the next leader of the country.

The result of the competition will not be known until Monday afternoon at the earliest, and there is still room for other twists. Mr Johnson has not endorsed Mr Sunak, and another ambitious candidate, Penny Mordaunt, remains in the hunt. But Mr Johnson’s withdrawal removes much of the suspense from a race that was shaping up to be an epic battle between the former prime minister and his former chancellor.

Mr Johnson said he believed he had a path to victory, although the BBC estimated he had the public support of just 57 Tory lawmakers. This was well below the 100 threshold required to be on the ballot, although he claimed to have 102 votes.

Either way, he said in a statement: “I have unfortunately come to the conclusion that it just wouldn’t be the right thing to do.”

Mr Johnson, 58, said he did not believe he could govern effectively without a unified Conservative party in Parliament. Despite what he said were his efforts to reach out to Mr Sunak and Ms Mordaunt to create some kind of unity ticket, ‘unfortunately we have not been able to find a way to do this’.

Mr Johnson’s departure ends a feverish three days after Ms Truss resigned in which he once again captured the public eye and dominated political conversation. But his campaign never really caught on. Party leaders have thrown their support behind Mr Sunak as a better option to try to unify a divided party and put the chaos of recent months – largely caused by Mr Johnson – behind him.

For Mr Sunak, the 42-year-old son of Indian immigrants, the dizzying events seemed to crown a remarkable turnaround in his fortunes. In September, he lost his leadership bid to Ms Truss in a vote of party members, despite winning the most votes from Tory lawmakers. Today, he is set to become the first colored prime minister in British history.

Mr. Sunak, who officially declared his candidacy Sunday with a promise to “fix our economy”, had lined up at least 155 votes late Sunday afternoon, according to a BBC tally, more than double the votes pledged to Mr Johnson.

Beyond the power play, Sunak has won multiple endorsements from people on the Conservative Party’s right flank. On Sunday morning, Steve Baker, a lawmaker who represents an influential group of eurosceptics in Parliament, announced that he would support him.

‘Boris Johnson would be a guaranteed disaster,’ Mr Baker said says Sky News’ Sophy Ridge. “We cannot allow this to happen.”

Later in the day, Suella Braverman, an immigration hardliner who briefly served as Home Secretary under Ms Truss, threw her support behind Mr Sunak, as did Kemi Badenoch, the International Trade Secretary and a rising party star.

For Mr Johnson, who returned home on Saturday from a vacation in the Dominican Republic to woo lawmakers, it was sobering evidence of how much has changed since he won a landslide general election victory in 2019. Despite endorsements from former members of his cabinet, he was unable to persuade the party’s right flank – traditionally the bedrock of his support – to back him.

Not only did many party leaders view Mr Johnson as an intolerable risk, but they also believed Mr Sunak, who ran the Treasury under Mr Johnson, could bridge some of the bitter ideological divisions within the party, which have been deepened by Mrs. Truss’ turbulent six weeks in office. In the last contest, a lot of people on the right of the party flocked to Ms Truss, resulting in her beating Mr Sunak.

Under rules set by the party, candidates must have nominations from at least 100 of the 357 Conservative lawmakers to advance to a second ballot, which is held among the party’s rank-and-file members.

Candidates have until 2 p.m. Monday to collect applications. On Monday, the party will hold two rounds of voting to winnow the field to one or two. If there are two left, party members will vote online later in the week.

Ms Mordaunt, who is seen as popular with members, could still be a factor if she is able to cobble together the required 100 legislators. After declaring her candidacy on Friday, she insisted on Sunday that she was confident of lining up more than 100 lawmakers. But political analysts have pointed out that even if all of Mr Johnson’s publicly declared supporters changed their votes for Ms Mordaunt, it would still leave her short by 100.

She said she had rejected a plea from Mr Johnson to back him, while media outlets said she had asked him to back his candidacy.

Mr Johnson has received endorsements from current Foreign Secretary James Cleverly as well as a member of his last cabinet, Nadhim Zahawi, who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer after Mr Sunak stepped down. (On Sunday night he shifted his support to Mr Sunak after Mr Johnson withdrew.)

Mr Sunak’s departure in July helped spark the massive ministers’ walkout that ousted Mr Johnson after a series of scandals that included illicit parties in Downing Street during the coronavirus pandemic and Mr Johnson’s defense of a conservative lawmaker accused of sexual misconduct.

“When I was Chancellor I saw a preview of what Boris 2.0 would look like,” Mr. Zahawi wrote on Twitter. “He was contrite and honest about his mistakes. He had learned from those mistakes how he could better lead the No10 and the country.

Other observers were more jaded. They noted that Mr Johnson and his allies claimed to have rounded up the votes of around 100 lawmakers several times throughout the weekend without ever providing evidence that this was true.

British newspapers reported that Mr Johnson had tried to strike a deal with Mr Sunak to join forces, meeting him on Saturday. But the form of such a ticket has never been clear, given Mr Sunak’s lead among lawmakers, and the animosity between the two men has made any cooperation farfetched.

In the statement announcing his candidacy, Mr Sunak said his experience as Chancellor would enable him to lead Britain through the economic challenges ahead. He promised a government of “integrity, professionalism and accountability”, drawing a clear comparison to the ethical failings of Mr Johnson’s tenure.

For all his success in winning over lawmakers, Mr Sunak would still face a tough job to resuscitate his party’s fortunes. The Conservatives trail the opposition Labor Party by more than 30 percentage points in the polls. Despite his flaws, Mr Johnson was still considered by many to be a proven vote-collector.

Mr Sunak also has to deal with a party still torn by factional feuds and divisions. The fact that Mr Johnson was considered a potential leader, even briefly, attests to the residual grip he had on the party and the task Mr Sunak would face as leader. Some political analysts were already wondering if there would be a place in Mr Sunak’s cabinet for Mr Johnson.

On Sunday, it was Mr. Sunak’s turn to be the magnanimous winner. Mr Johnson, he said in a statement, “led our country through some of the toughest challenges we have ever faced and then faced Putin and his barbaric war in Ukraine”.

“Although he has decided not to run again as Prime Minister,” Mr Sunak added, “I really hope that he will continue to contribute to public life at home and abroad.”