LONDON — The question of who will lead Britain into its future outside the European Union — a muddled mess for nearly a week — was further scrambled Thursday, with the camp that had favored an exit splintering into warring tribes and forcing former London mayor Boris Johnson to drop from the contest to become prime minister.
The latest whiplash in British politics pushes the flamboyant Johnson to the margins and sets up a showdown within the governing Conservatives to replace Prime Minister David Cameron, who is stepping down in the wake of the E.U. snub by British voters.
The choice cuts across the lines of the referendum: Go with a party insider who broke with Cameron and championed the anti-E.U. side, or stick with a Cameron loyalist and pick Britain’s first female leader since Margaret Thatcher.
Until Thursday morning, the race had been shaping up as a likely standoff between Johnson, the mop-headed rogue who favored “leave,” and Theresa May, the no-nonsense domestic security chief who had backed “remain.”
But Michael Gove, the bookish justice secretary who was regarded as the intellectual architect of the “leave” campaign, shocked the country’s political establishment Thursday by announcing that he, too, would enter the fray.
Later — and just minutes before the deadline to formally join the pack to occupy 10 Downing Street — Johnson bowed out.
Gove had been expected to serve as Johnson’s campaign manager, uniting the two men who had been the most prominent Conservative backers for Brexit, as a British departure from the European Union is popularly known.
But he apparently had a last-minute change of heart, saying he had come “to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.”
Gove, who has been nearly invisible since last Thursday’s referendum to exit the European Union, did not release any detailed vision for the country’s future. He said his “plan for the United Kingdom which I hope can provide unity and change” would be unveiled “in the coming days.”
Johnson, who had widely been considered the favorite to take the keys to Downing Street, has also made himself scarce since the vote, largely avoiding the media.
But in a speech Thursday, Johnson delivered an extensive defense of his record as London mayor and said the country needed someone to lead the country to a fairer and more prosperous future outside the European Union.
It appeared that he was preparing to announce his entry into the race to be prime minister, and several British media outlets reported that was exactly what it was. As the speech came to a close, however, Johnson delivered a stunner, saying that “in view of the circumstances in Parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me.”
Johnson’s choice to opt out was an extraordinary development for a man who has made little secret that he covets the top job in British politics.
Gove’s decision was equally astonishing.
His announcement that he will stand for prime minister, despite earlier support for Johnson, is just the latest in a Shakespearean string of betrayals at the highest reaches of British politics. First Johnson and Gove turned their backs on Cameron, their friend and sparring partner since their days at Oxford. Then Gove, who campaigned for Brexit beside Johnson for months, turned the knife on the former London mayor.
“You couldn’t make it up,” Tory member of Parliament Nigel Evans told the BBC. “It makes the ‘House of Cards’ look like ‘Teletubbies.’ ”
Before Johnson bowed out, Evans said he would continue to back Johnson. But a number of prominent supporters of the former London mayor almost immediately switched their allegiance to Gove when the justice secretary jumped into the race.
There had been rumors before Thursday morning that Johnson would announce the support of more than 100 Tory members of Parliament — a robust opening bid in the contest. But if he ever had such support, it was apparently paper-thin.
Gove had said repeatedly throughout the campaign that he had no interest in becoming prime minister, claiming he was temperamentally unsuited for the job.
Johnson’s malleable politics, and reputation for opportunism, have led to mistrust among hard-cord Brexit backers, who have never been sure he was ideologically devoted to the idea of leading Britain out of the European Union.
A column Johnson wrote in the Daily Telegraph this week in which he seemed to back away from calls for tougher restrictions on immigration only solidified those fears.
Gove, by contrast, is considered a devout Brexiteer whose ideological commitment to the cause is beyond reproach.
As the “leave” camp split, May presented herself as a “unity” candidate who, despite backing “remain,” could bring together the badly fractured Conservative Party.
She was introduced Thursday by Chris Grayling, a prominent Brexiteer, and advertised herself as the candidate best prepared for the tough talks ahead with E.U. leaders, having spent years wrangling with other European security chiefs as the country’s home affairs minister.
“I have not just done it. I’ve delivered on those negotiations,” she said.
Despite supporting “remain,” May said there would be no going back on Brexit. She was considered only a reluctant E.U. backer, with a long record of Euroskepticism and a hard line against mass immigration.
May would be the second female prime minister in British history, after Thatcher. May’s unsmiling public persona and hard-line conservative politics have drawn occasional comparisons to the Iron Lady.
Britain’s next prime minister will not be picked by the general public. Instead, he or she will be selected in a two-stage process within the ruling Conservative Party. First, the party’s members of Parliament will whittle the field — which includes a number of dark-horse candidates — down to two. Then the party’s rank-and-file members will select the winner.
Whoever emerges will take over from Cameron on Sept. 9. Cameron said Friday that he would step down, having led a losing campaign to keep Britain in the E.U.
Cameron has said he will not formally trigger Britain’s exit and will leave that task to his successor. Once the next leader invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the never-before-used mechanism by which E.U. members can leave the bloc, the next prime minister will have two years to negotiate a new deal with the 27 remaining members.
Europe signaled Wednesday that it will drive a hard bargain, refusing to budge on likely British demands that the bloc relax its rules allowing freedom of movement for workers across national borders. European leaders say that if Britain wants access to the single market, it will have to accept free movement.
Ever since last Thursday’s vote, the Brexit camp has been silent on how it can deliver on the promises it made during the referendum campaign.
Gove, May and other candidates will now spend the summer jostling over who can get the best possible deal amid the political and economic wreckage wrought by last Thursday’s vote.
The internal warfare among Tories has been matched — and exceeded — within the opposition Labour Party.
Pressure continued to build Thursday on party leader Jeremy Corbyn to resign, with a likely challenge emerging from one of his former top lieutenants, Angela Eagle.
On Wednesday, the country’s last Labour prime minister, Corbyn’s predecessor as Labour leader and Cameron all urged Corbyn to step aside.
The calls came just a day after Corbyn suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of his fellow Labour members of Parliament, with 172 of them expressing no confidence in his leadership through a secret ballot. Only 40 backed the leftist politician.
The indignity continued Wednesday in the most public way possible: At the weekly political joust known as Prime Minister’s Questions, Cameron told Corbyn: “For heaven’s sake, man, go!”
The comment elicited rapturous cheers from Cameron’s Conservative benches and silence from Labour.
Despite his fast-crumbling position, Corbyn continued to cling to what remains of his power. He has steadfastly refused to step aside, even as the Labour Party has veered toward a possible breakup if he won’t go.
Corbyn’s two immediate predecessors as Labour leader, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, also urged him to go.
With Corbyn refusing to budge, some of Labour’s more moderate members have explored creating a splinter party.
Corbyn’s election to the leadership in September was a lurch to the left for a party that governed from the center-left for 13 years under Brown and Tony Blair.