BORIS Johnson has abandoned his dream of becoming the next leader of the Conservative Party after an astonishing grapple for power by Michael Gove that left some in the party saying the former London mayor had been “knifed”.
The former London mayor gathered the Press together this morning for what should have been a victorious bid to lead the Tories after Britain voted to leave the European Union.
Just one hour earlier, however, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, a co-campaigner with Vote Leave, announced he was standing after denying he would do so for several years.
Looking pale and tired as he spoke at a hotel in central London, Mr Johnson said the next Tory leader would have to unify his party and ensure that Britain stood tall in the world.
“Having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in Parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me,” said Mr Johnson, as supporters looked on aghast.
Despite campaigning as a duo throughout the Vote Leave campaign and the assumption Mr Gove would serve as Mr Johnson’s number two, the senior Tory politician said he did not think Mr Johnson could lead the Brexit negotiations.
However, the wheels were already coming off the former London mayor’s campaign for leadership 24 hours before he abandoned the race, according to Yorkshire MP Stuart Andrew.
The Conservative MP for Pudsey, who backed Brexit, said: “To be honest it was becoming increasingly obvious that he couldn’t get people to support him. There was a danger that he could become a divisive figure. I thought it was important to have a candidate to unite the party.”
“I had been having a debate for a couple of days and Michael’s statement confirmed to me my own thoughts, that it was right to think what I was thinking. What I want is someone who is right for the country.”
He said Mr Gove had no option but to put forward his honest view about Mr Johnson’s capabilities to lead and said it would not have been an easy decision for him to make.
However, other Conservatives have described Mr Gove’s last-minute leadership entry as destabilising. One said not even the fall of Margaret Thatcher created such pitch and sway in drama.
“Michael is so stained in blood that even by Conservative Party standards it’s going to be hard to see how he can come back from this. He’s absolutely done a Sopranos job,” they said.
Another source said: “Michael Gove did not contact Boris Johnson before making his announcement. The fact that he didn’t talk to him leads you to conclude that he was knifed.”
However, Lord Heseltine tore into Mr Johnson on BBC Radio Five Live and said he needed to take responsibility for Brexit and should have stayed on to challenge Mr Gove to show loyalty to those who voted to leave the EU guided by his campaigning.
He said: “I have never seen anything like it. He’s ripped the Tory party apart, he has created the greatest constitutional crisis in peacetime in my life.
“He’s knocked billions off his value of the savings of the British people. He’s like a general who marches his army to the sound of the guns and the moment he sees the battleground he abandons it.”
Today the Tories are embarking on a last-minute scramble to secure backing from MPs, who will now chose between Mr Gove, Home Secretary Theresa May, Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb, Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom and former Defence Secretary Liam Fox.
Two candidates will be selected by MPs on Tuesday before ballot papers are sent to every member party member. Of the figures who had been considering bids themselves, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is backing Mrs May and Education Secretary Nicky Morgan is backing Mr Gove.
“After the referendum result felt we needed someone to lead this country who believed heart and soul in leaving the European Union,” Michael Gove told the BBC.
“I also believed we needed someone who would be able to build a team, lead and unite. I hoped that person would be Boris Johnson.
“I’d enjoyed working with Boris during the referendum campaign. He’s a man of great attributes and great qualities.
“I came in the last few days reluctantly and firmly to the conclusion that while Boris has great attributes, he was not capable of uniting that team.”