Boris Johnson's shock exit reverberates through Britain’s ruling party

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves his home, in London, Britain March 21, 2023. Peter Nicholls/REUTERS

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves his home, in London, Britain March 21, 2023. Peter Nicholls/REUTERS

Published Jun 11, 2023


LONDON - Old rifts resurfaced in Britain's ruling Conservative Party on Saturday following former Prime Minister Boris Johnson's abrupt resignation from parliament, while the opposition Labour Party sensed opportunity ahead of a general election next year.

Johnson quit late on Friday in protest against an investigation by lawmakers into his conduct as prime minister during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when lockdown-breaking parties were held in Downing Street.

In his resignation statement, Johnson railed against the inquiry that examined whether he misled the House of Commons about the gatherings, saying it had not found "a shred of evidence" against him. He also took aim at Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Sunak's Conservatives, trailing badly in opinion polls, must now fight three by-elections in constituencies vacated on Friday by Johnson and his ally Nadine Dorries, and on Saturday by Nigel Adams, a former minister in the Johnson government.

Johnson's loyalists, some of whom received political honours from him hours before his resignation, praised his record in social media posts. The rest were silent.

"Well done Rishi for starting this nonsense!!" lawmaker Andrea Jenkyns wrote in a Conservative Party WhatsApp group,according to a screen shot shared by a Sky News reporter.

Jenkyns received the honorary title of Dame in Johnson's resignation honours list published on Friday which critics derided as an exercise in cronyism.

His premiership was cut short last year in part by anger in his own party and across Britain over Covid rule-breaking lockdown parties in his Downing Street office and residence.

Henry Hill, deputy editor of the Conservative Home website,said Johnson's exit meant he was no longer a "prince-over-water" in parliament who threatened Sunak's grip on the party.

"It will mean that any trouble made by his allies is much less potent," Hill told BBC radio.

A YouGov poll published on Saturday showed 65% of Britons thought Johnson knowingly misled parliament, compared with 17%who did not.

The opposition Labour Party, which has a roughly 16-point lead over Sunak's Conservatives in opinion polls, said it relished the prospect of fighting the by-elections in Conservative-held constituencies.

"We will be fighting to win in those constituencies," Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner told the BBC on Saturday.

"They've created a by-election because both of them (Johnson and Dorries) have thrown their toys out of the pram."

Johnson's decision to resign may be the end of his 22-year political career, where he rose from parliament to become mayor of London and then built a profile that tipped the balance of the 2016 European Union referendum in favour of Brexit, before becoming prime minister in 2019.

He did leave a possible door open to return, saying at the end of his resignation statement that it was "very sad to be leaving parliament – at least for now".

Boris Johnson Johnson announced his resignation as an MP on June 9, 2023, accusing a parliamentary probe into the Covid ‘Partygate’ scandal of driving him out. Picture: Ben Stansall / AFP

Brexit to 'Partygate': The rise and fall of Boris Johnson

Johnson was once likened by a member of his party to a "greased piglet" for his ability to bounce back from a succession of setbacks and scandals that would have sunk other less popular politicians.

However, his luck has continued to fade as Covid-era party scandals forced him to quit as a member of parliament less than a year after they helped push him out of office as prime minister.

The 58-year-old populist angrily quit as MP in the midst of an investigation into whether he repeatedly lied to parliament over lockdown-breaking parties when he was in office, which he slammed as a "kangaroo court".

His resignation pre-empted a finding which could force a humiliating fight to retain his MP seat, which he held by a slim majority.

Johnson led the Tories to a thumping 80-seat majority in the December 2019 general election on a promise to "get Brexit done".

That allowed him to railroad through parliament his divorce deal with the EU, unblocking years of political paralysis.

But he was undone by his handling of the Covid pandemic, "Partygate" and a succession of other scandals that led to a ministerial rebellion in July last year.

Even though he quit as prime minister, rumours have persisted that Johnson – a thrice-married father of at least eight children – had not given up hope of another shot at the top job.


Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson had a conventional rise to power for a Conservative politician: first the elite Eton College, then Oxford University.

At Eton, his teachers bemoaned his "cavalier attitude" to his studies and the sense he gave that he should be treated as "an exception".

Johnson's apparent attitude that rules were for other people was amply demonstrated in 2006 when he inexplicably rugby tackled a football opponent in a charity game.

His elastic relationship with the truth was forged at Oxford, where he was president of the Oxford Union, a debating society founded on rhetoric and repartee rather than mastery of cold, hard facts.

His privileged cohort in the backstabbing den of student politics provided many leading Brexiteers.

Soon after Oxford, he married his first wife – fellow student Allegra Mostyn-Owen –despite her mother's misgivings.

"I didn't like the fact he was on the right," Gaia Servadio, who died in 2021, was quoted as saying by Johnson's biographer Tom Bower.

"But above all, I didn't like his character. For him, the truth doesn't exist."

After university, he was sacked from The Times newspaper after making up a quote, then joined The Telegraph as its Brussels correspondent.

From there, he fed the growing Conservative Euroscepticism of the 1990s with regular "euromyths" about supposed EU plans for a federal mega-state threatening British sovereignty.

Exasperated rivals charged with matching his questionable exclusives described some of his tales as "complete bollocks".


Johnson capitalised on his increasingly high profile with satirical television quiz show appearances and newspaper and magazine columns.

Much of his journalism has since been requoted at length, particularly his unreconstructed views on issues from single mothers and homosexuality to British colonialism.

He became an MP in 2004, with the Tory leader at the time, Michael Howard, sacking him from his shadow cabinet for lying about an extra-marital affair.

From 2008 to 2016 he served two terms as mayor of London, promoting himself as a pro-EU liberal, a stance which he abandoned as soon as the Brexit referendum came about.

He became "leave" campaign's figurehead, capitalising on his popular image as an unconventional but likeable rogue as the quickest route to power.

His former editor at The Telegraph, Max Hastings, described it as cynical – but not unexpected. Johnson, he said, "cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification".

Hastings wrote in The Times before Johnson's resignation as prime minister that he had "broken every rule of decency, and made no attempt to pursue a coherent policy agenda beyond Brexit".

But he was "the same moral bankrupt as when the Conservative party chose him, as shambolic in his conduct of office as in his management of his life".

After he quit as MP, the Labour party's deputy leader Angela Rayner said the public –battling a cost-of-living crisis – have had enough of the "never-ending Tory soap opera".