Boris Johnson resigned as Tory leader but delivered a broadside at the “eccentric” decision by Cabinet colleagues and MPs to force him out.
The Prime Minister intends to remain in office until his successor is elected, a process which could take months, prompting a backlash from party grandees and political opponents over his attempt to “cling on” in No 10 until the autumn.
He assembled a new-look Cabinet to replace the ministers who quit or were sacked since the political bloodbath began on Tuesday.
While the Prime Minister was intent on showing he was still in charge – even if only temporarily – his potential successors began setting out their stalls.
In an unapologetic resignation statement, Mr Johnson said he had fought to stay on because of a sense of “duty” to the “millions of people who voted for us” in 2019 when he won a landslide election victory.
“I have tried to persuade my colleagues that it would be eccentric to change governments when we are delivering so much and when we have such a vast mandate and when we are actually only a handful of points behind in the polls,” he said.
But “I regret not to have been successful in those arguments and of course it is painful not to be able to see through so many ideas and projects myself”.
Mr Johnson told his new Cabinet in a meeting on Thursday afternoon the Government will now focus on the agenda on which it was elected, and not seek to implement new policies or make major changes of direction.
He said major fiscal decisions should be left for the next Prime Minister, No 10 said.
Since Tuesday evening almost 60 MPs have quit government or party posts and on Thursday morning newly-appointed Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi went public with a call for Mr Johnson to go.
“As we’ve seen, at Westminster the herd instinct is powerful, when the herd moves, it moves,” the Prime Minister said.
He acknowledged that “in politics, no one is remotely indispensable” in Westminster.
In a statement which was watched by staff, supportive MPs and his wife Carrie Johnson carrying their child Romy, the Prime Minister said: “I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world, but them’s the breaks.”
The PM has made the right decision.
The Government under Boris's leadership had many achievements – delivering Brexit, vaccines and backing Ukraine.
We need calmness and unity now and to keep governing while a new leader is found.
— Liz Truss (@trussliz) July 7, 2022
He said his successor’s priorities should include “cutting taxes because that is the way to generate the growth and the income we need to pay the great public services”.
Tory leadership hopefuls were preparing for a potentially bitter contest over the summer as Mr Johnson quit.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who cut short an official trip to a summit in Indonesia to return to Westminster, said: “We need calmness and unity now and to keep governing while a new leader is found.”
Attorney General Suella Braverman and arch-Brexiteer Steve Baker have both indicated they will run.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “We now need a new leader as soon as practicable. Someone who can rebuild trust, heal the country, and set out a new, sensible and consistent economic approach to help families.”
And Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, confirmed he will be standing, saying he was putting together a “broad coalition” to provide a “clean start”.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, the former soldier said: “I have served before – in the military, and now in Parliament. Now I hope to answer the call once again as prime minister.”
Both ex-health secretary Sajid Javid and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps were understood to be seriously considering leadership bids, according to allies.
The caretaker administration appointed by Mr Johnson ahead of his resignation announcement included Greg Clark as the new Levelling Up Secretary, replacing Michael Gove who was sacked on Wednesday, while James Cleverly has been made Education Secretary – the third person to hold that role in as many days.
Sir Robert Buckland returns to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Wales, following the resignation of Simon Hart.
Kit Malthouse is the new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Shailesh Vara is the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, replacing Brandon Lewis who quit early on Thursday morning.
Andrew Stephenson has been appointed Minister without Portfolio, and will attend Cabinet.
While the new team met on Thursday – perhaps mindful of the glum faces pictured at Tuesday morning’s gathering before the political carnage unfolded – no press cameras were allowed in.
Details of the leadership election to replace Mr Johnson will be thrashed out next week but critics were already protesting about him remaining in No 10 while the contest takes place.
Former prime minister Sir John Major said it was “unwise and may be unsustainable”, warning that the new Cabinet might not be able to “restrain” Mr Johnson in his final months in office.
George Freeman, who quit as science minister on Thursday morning, said the Queen should “appoint a caretaker under whom ministers can serve, so the Conservative Party can choose a new leader properly”.
Lord Barwell, who served as Theresa May’s chief of staff, said there was a “question whether the PM will be able to lead a caretaker government”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Conservatives should not “inflict” someone they deem to be “unfit” for office on the country and warned he might use a Commons confidence motion to try to remove Mr Johnson from No 10.