UK’s Johnson digs in for final weeks as potential successors jostle for position

LONDON (AP) — A field of candidates to replace departing Prime Minister Boris Johnson began to take shape Friday, even as some Conservative Party lawmakers pushed to get the scandal-tarnished leader out of office before his replacement is elected in the next couple of months.

Johnson announced his resignation on Thursday — a dizzying about-face after months spent insisting he would stay in his job amid mounting ethics scandals and growing Conservative discontent.

He quit as party leader with a statement to the nation outside 10 Downing St., but said he would stay in post as prime minister until his successor is chosen by the party. That decision didn’t sit well with some of his Conservative colleagues, who worry Johnson lacks the authority to hang on, or could do mischief even as a caretaker prime minister.

James Cleverly, appointed as education secretary on Thursday after his predecessor quit during a mass exodus of ministers, defended Johnson’s decision to stay.

“It’s right that he has stood down and it’s right that he has put a team in place to continue governing whilst the selection procedure flows for his successor,” Cleverly told Sky News. “And we should do that I think pretty quickly, pretty promptly.”

Party officials are due to set out the timetable for a leadership contest on Monday, with the aim of having a winner by the end of the summer. The two-step process involves Tory lawmakers voting to reduce the field of candidates to two, who will go to a ballot of all party members across the country.

James Cleverly, named as new education secretary, arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London, July 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Lawmaker Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the House of Commons’ influential Foreign Affairs Committee, became the second candidate to declare he is running, after Attorney General Suella Braverman. Former Health Secretary Sajid Javid and ex-Treasury chief Rishi Sunak — whose resignations this week helped topple Johnson — are also likely contenders, along with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

Even as contenders launch their campaigns, Johnson remains in office atop a caretaker administration formed from a dwindling band of loyalists alongside ministers who have agreed to stay in office to keep the government running.

Johnson has promised not to make any major policy decisions in his remaining time, but many Conservatives say a lame-duck leader is the last thing the country needs amid Russia’s war in Ukraine and a worsening cost-of-living crisis triggered by soaring food and energy prices.

Some also are wary of Johnson’s intentions after a resignation speech in which he made clear he didn’t want to leave, but had failed “to persuade my colleagues that it would be eccentric to change governments when we’re delivering so much and when we have such a vast mandate.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to media next to 10 Downing Street in London, July 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

George Freeman, who quit as science minister on Thursday, said he worried about a leadership election being held in “a febrile moment of midsummer madness, where we choose the wrong person in a hurry because of the instability.”

Some had pushed for Johnson to give way and let Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab step in as temporary leader. But lawmaker Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the Conservative committee that runs party leadership contests, said “that ship has sailed.”

“We must now live with the fact that Boris Johnson will be prime minister until a successor can be voted on,” he said.

The main opposition Labour Party said that was unacceptable and vowed to call for a no-confidence vote in Johnson in the House of Commons next week, though prospects of its success were uncertain.

“He’s a proven liar who’s engulfed in sleaze and we can’t have another couple of months of this, you know,” Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said. “So they do have to get rid of him, and if they don’t, we will call a no-confidence vote because it’s pretty clear — he hasn’t got the confidence of the House or the British public.”

Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab arrives at 10 Downing Street in London, January 18, 2022. (Alastair Grant/AP)

The brash, 58-year-old politician who took Britain out of the European Union and has been at the helm through COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, has repeatedly defied the odds during a rollercoaster political career.

In recent months he managed to remain in power despite accusations that he was too close to party donors, that he protected supporters from bullying and corruption allegations, and that he misled Parliament about government office parties that broke COVID-19 lockdown rules.

He was fined by police for attending one of the parties — the first prime minister ever sanctioned for breaking the law in office — but went on to survive a no-confidence vote last month in Parliament, though 41% of Conservative lawmakers tried to oust him.

He was brought down by one scandal too many — this one involving his appointment of a politician who had been accused of sexual misconduct.

Johnson faced days of questions, and gave days of conflicting answers, over what he knew about past allegations against Chris Pincher, a Conservative lawmaker who resigned as party deputy chief whip last week after allegedly groping two men at a private club. Pincher acknowledged he had got drunk and “embarrassed myself.”

Johnson offered shifting explanations about what he knew and when he knew it. That just brought concerns the prime minister couldn’t be trusted to boiling point.

Javid and Sunak, key Cabinet members who were responsible, respectively, for fighting COVID-19 and inflation, resigned within minutes of each other Tuesday, setting off a wave of departures by their colleagues.

From left, British Health Secretary Sajid Javid, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrive at No 9 Downing Street for a media briefing on May 7, 2021. (Toby Melville/PA via AP)

Johnson clung to power for days, defiantly telling lawmakers on Wednesday that he had a “colossal mandate” from the voters and intended to get on with the business of governing.

His resignation the next day was a humiliating defeat for a politician whose jokey bluster brought a celebrity status unmatched in British politics — but who was accused of behaving as if the rules didn’t apply to him. The party acted once it decided that a leader with a rare ability to connect with voters had turned into a liability.

Conservative supporter Ernest William Lee said he “heaved a great sigh of relief” when Johnson announced he would leave.

“I’m sorry this country has got into this state,” Lee said. “It’s a mess and it needs someone very strong — male or female, I don’t care — to run it, run it properly and get it back on its feet.”

“I hate being the laughing stock of Europe.”

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