KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
One of the key architects of the United Kingdom's push to leave the European Union gave a speech today about the country's future. Then instead of saying he wanted to lead the country into that future as prime minister, Boris Johnson, the former London mayor, stunned everyone by saying this.
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BORIS JOHNSON: Well, I must tell you, my friends, you who have waited faithfully for the punchline of this speech, that having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in Parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me.
MCEVERS: We'll hear more about Boris Johnson in a moment. But first NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on where Johnson's announcement leaves Britain.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: On the streets of the city today, reaction to Johnson's decision to abandon his bid for prime minister ranged from cynicism to discouragement.
ELLA KELLY: It's just a joke, really, and I think he's probably realized that he can't do it. He's all bluff, and he just - he can't back it up.
MADELYN REED: I'm not very surprised because I think he just wanted to win, but he didn't really have a follow-through plan.
ANGUS BEGG: I think that he's reacted very well to the knowledge that he's been passed a poison chalice.
LANGFITT: That was Ella Kelly, Madelyn Reed and Angus Begg. They spoke around lunchtime today in central London. Johnson's U-turn on the prime minister's job came just hours after another surprise announcement.
Justice Secretary Michael Gove who had vowed to run as part of Johnson's team announced that he thought Johnson was incapable of leading the Conservative Party and that he - Gove - wanted the prime minister's job for himself. Nigel Ramsey, who also stopped to chat on the street today, said Johnson knew he was finished.
NIGEL RAMSEY: He made the right decision when he was the victim of a Michael Gove stabbing.
LANGFITT: Beyond today's palace intrigue, there was also disappointment that Johnson had helped put the United Kingdom on what most see as a perilous path but was not willing to manage the country's tricky exit from the EU, the 28-nation trading bloc.
PETER CATTERALL: Democracy is not just about voting. It's also about being responsible.
LANGFITT: That's professor Peter Catterall who teaches history at the University of Westminster.
CATTERALL: And what's happening now? The man who is most responsible for getting Britain into the situation it is now has just walked away from taking anymore part in dealing with the mess that he has created.
LANGFITT: With Johnson out of the leadership picture at least for now, Theresa May, the home secretary, is considered the leading candidate to preside over a fractured party even though May actually supported remaining in the EU. Catterall says it's a high-risk job that Johnson probably realized was too dangerous to take on.
CATTERALL: Whoever becomes leader in the autumn will be coming to the post in possibly the most difficult circumstances of any prime minister, any Tory prime minister since perhaps Harold MacMillan.
LANGFITT: And that was nearly 60 years ago. Brian Klaas says the new prime minister will not only have to unify the Conservative Party but also the nation. Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics. He spoke with us over Skype.
BRIAN KLAAS: Seventeen million people voted to leave the European Union, and they want that divorce to happen. But 16 million people have voted to stay in the European Union, and they're hugely disappointed and passionately upset. You need to have national unity at a time where you can't even build party unity, and that's the big challenge for whoever takes the helm of British politics going forward.
LANGFITT: And Klaas says the stakes couldn't be any higher.
KLAAS: Because this is not a question about party politics anymore. This is a question about Britain's economic vitality. It's a question about the United Kingdom staying together, and it's a question about Britain's future place in the world. And somebody needs to rise to the challenge.
LANGFITT: Altogether there are five candidates to replace Prime Minister David Cameron who announced his resignation after losing last week's referendum. Conservative MPs will begin voting next week to winnow the field, and party members will choose from among the top two in early September. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.
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