LONDON • Former London mayor Boris Johnson, the runaway book- makers' favourite to become Britain's next prime minister, abruptly pulled out of the race yesterday in a shock announcement less than a week after leading the campaign to pull the country out of the European Union.
The decision is likely to benefit Ms Theresa May, the no-nonsense interior minister who backed remaining in the EU, and who is now regarded as the new favourite to succeed Prime Minister David Cameron. Ms May declared her candidacy for the Tory party leadership yesterday.
Mr Johnson's announcement, made to audible gasps from a roomful of journalists and supporters, was the biggest political surprise since Mr Cameron quit last Friday.
His decision came hours after his fellow Brexit campaigner, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, declared his candidacy and withdrew his support for Mr Johnson, in a move some likened to knifing a colleague in the back.
"I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead," Mr Gove said in a surprise statement.
Mr Johnson's withdrawal shows the speed with which the political landscape is being reshaped in Britain, with the opposition Labour Party also in leadership turmoil.
"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," Mr Johnson said at a news conference.
Apart from Mr Gove and Ms May, three others are in the leadership race: Mr Stephen Crabb, the Cabinet minister responsible for pensions; Mr Liam Fox, a right-wing former defence secretary; and Ms Andrea Leadsom, a minister in the energy department.
Ms May promised to deliver the EU withdrawal that voters had demanded. "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," she said yesterday.
Although a long-standing euro-sceptic and hardliner on immigration, the 59-year-old trod a fine line between remaining loyal to Mr Cameron and the Remain campaign, and appeasing Tory core members who wanted to quit the EU and clamp down on immigration.
"Following last week's referendum, our country needs strong leadership to steer us through this period of economic and political uncertainty," Ms May said during her launch bid.
Conservative lawmakers said Mr Johnson might have been undone by Cameron supporters exacting revenge for his decision to defy the Prime Minister and back the Leave campaign.
"He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword," said one lawmaker, describing the internal party conflict on condition of anonymity.
The lawmaker told Reuters that Mr Johnson realised his bid would fail after lawmakers defected from his campaign overnight.
Mr Johnson became the latest political casualty of a civil war in the ruling party unleashed by Mr Cameron's decision to hold the referendum on membership in the EU, an issue that divided the Conservatives for decades and now divides the country.
The Labour Party has also been thrown into turmoil by the Brexit vote, as lawmakers moved in its aftermath to oust left-wing party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Senior lawmaker Angela Eagle was expected to announce a leadership challenge yesterday to Mr Corbyn, who has refused to resign despite losing a confidence vote by MPs.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE