Boris Johnson drops out of race leaving Rishi Sunak as clear front-runner

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LONDON — Boris Johnson, after fighting hard for a comeback, abruptly dropped out of the race to return as Britain’s prime minister on Sunday, saying it was in the national interest to withdraw from leadership ambitions — for now.

The dramatic development makes Rishi Sunak, the former finance minister who is pushing ahead in the race, the firm favourite.

Sunak would be the first leader of color to preside over the UK government and the first of Indian descent.

His wife is the daughter of the founder of Infosys, who is a billionaire in India. The couple are among the richest in Britain. Sunak is a graduate of Stanford University and a former employee of Goldman Sachs. He is a centrist on the economy, promising to balance the books and account for the Bank of England and the bond market.

Sunak was also partially responsible for Johnson’s ouster as Prime Minister.

He abandoned Johnson’s cabinet when his government collapsed in the summer. Sunak was also prescient, saying the economic plan for Johnson’s replacement, Liz Truss, was based on “fantasy economics”. Truss was a zealous supply and tax cut enthusiast who lasted just six weeks after the plan caused massive disruption to Britain’s economy.

In a statement, Johnson said he had enough support to move on to a vote among Conservative Party lawmakers on Monday. That claim was not supported by compilations of lawmakers by the BBC and the Guardian, which did not show Johnson reaching the 100-vote barrier out of 357 Tory MPs in the House of Commons.

Johnson said, “I think I have a lot to offer but I’m afraid this just isn’t the right time.”

Johnson said he had reached out to his rivals Sunak and the Conservative leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt, to strike some sort of deal – Johnson did not specify what kind of deal – “because I was hoping we could come together in the national interest – we unfortunately have not been able to work out a way to do this.”

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He seemed to blame them for withdrawing.

“There is a very good chance that I would be successful in the election with members of the Conservative Party – and that I could indeed be back in Downing Street on Friday,” Johnson said.

“But over the last few days I have unfortunately come to the conclusion that this simply would not be the right thing to do. You cannot govern effectively if you do not have a united party in parliament,” he said.

Mordaunt are still in the running but are still far behind with only 25 declared supporters. Sunak has 155. Mordaunt will be hoping to get support from undeclared voters and Johnson supporters, but already some of them have said they will support Sunak.

Sunak reacted to the news of Johnson’s withdrawal, tweeting: “I sincerely hope he continues to contribute to public life at home and abroad.”

In what could be read as an appeal to Johnson supporters, he said: “Boris Johnson delivered Brexit and the great vaccine roll-out. He led our country through some of the toughest challenges we have ever faced, then took on Putin and his barbaric war in Ukraine. We will always be grateful to him for that.”

The problem for Johnson, the grumpy former leader who was ousted in July, was this: many of his Conservative Party teammates, along with so-called Tory grandees and once-friendly tabloid hacks, believed his return to power would spell “disaster. “

Even some of Johnson’s once closest allies were wary. “Go back to the beach,” said his former Brexit sidekick David Davis.

“It is part of Boris Johnson’s strange political genius that he should be considered for an encore at all,” wrote Charles Moore, his old boss and a Telegraph columnist, who warned: “True Boris fans will have the courage to tell him . to sit out.”

If Johnson had returned to power it would have been as a wounded Prime Minister.

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He simply had too much baggage to make a clean start.

People have seen the footage, which ended when Johnson, weighed down by scandal, was forced to quit in July after more than 50 ministers and aides resigned, calling him unfit to lead.

The sequel – or “Johnson 2.0” as the British press has dubbed it – would not have shied away from the plot points of the original.

For starters, he still faced a dangerous parliamentary inquiry into whether he lied to lawmakers about the coronavirus lockdown parties at 10 Downing Street. This is a serious allegation – one that could see him censured or worse – and likely to create headlines for months, a constant reminder that he was ousted as party leader and prime minister in July.

Boris Johnson blames ‘herd’, resigns to make way for new UK leader

Liz Truss resigned as Prime Minister on October 20 after six chaotic weeks in office. As Tory lawmakers prepared for a vote on Monday on who runs their party and therefore who runs Britain, the surrogate for Johnson and his main rival, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Sunak, held the morning talk shows gossipy Westminster. WhatsApp groups and rounds of phone calls and arm twisting.

The members — older, wealthier and 97 percent white — tend to swing to the right of the party, and polls show many favored Johnson over Sunak. But that could have changed.

Once their hero, many say Johnson has failed his members. They may have missed him – what the pollsters saw as “Boris nostalgia” – but did they want to see the next episode?

Rishi Sunak officially joins the race to become UK Prime Minister

Boris Johnson can drive again. He is still under investigation.

Johnson was once hugely popular. Today he is hugely divided, even in his own party. Outside the party? The public can’t stand him, according to the polls. His popularity has plummeted.

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William Hague, a Tory grandee who was once party leader himself, said Johnson’s return to power was the “worst idea I’ve heard of in the 46 years I’ve been a member of the Conservative Party” and would send the party into a ” death spiral”.

Steve Baker, the Northern Ireland minister and an influential figure on the party’s right, said Johnson would be a “guaranteed disaster” who was “bound to implode”.

Former interior minister Suella Braverman, who is also on the right of the party, came out for Sunak. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, she said that while she had previously supported Johnson “we are in dire straits now. We need unity, stability and efficiency. Rishi is the only candidate who fits the bill.”

In endorsing Sunak, lawmakers use words and phrases like “stability” and “competence,” saying he is the right man for the economic challenges ahead.

Those supporting Johnson said “he has learned from his mistakes” and “is remorseful.”

Nadhim Zahawi, a former top minister in Johnson’s government, tweeted: “A day is a long time in politics…” Indeed it was. Earlier in the day, he tweeted that he backed Johnson, saying he “has got the big calls right” and “Britain needs him back.” But he quickly shifted gears after hearing his old boss was dropping out of the race, saying it was time for the party to rally behind the “incredibly talented” Sunak.

Keir Starmer, the Labor leader, repeated his calls for a general election. “The country must get rid of this chaos,” he told the BBC.

The majority of Britons say they want a general election, although one is not required until January 2025. An early election could be called but would require the support of Conservative lawmakers, which seems unlikely given the party faces a near wipe out if an election was held today. A petition calling for a general election “to end the chaos of the current government” has quickly gathered over 850,000 signatures.

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