The former London Mayor’s ambition of reaching Number 10 lay in tatters last night after Michael Gove stunned Westminster by announcing he was standing for the Tory leadership.
Mr Gove’s last minute entry into the contest was described by Mr Johnson’s allies as an act of breath-taking betrayal which some likened to the stabbing of Julius Caesar by his former friend Brutus.
Until Mr Gove’s intervention, Mr Johnson had been thought of as the front-runner in a race that would put him against the Home Secretary Theresa May, who formally announced she would be standing yesterday.
Having managed Mr Johnson’s Leave campaign, it had been assumed that Mr Gove would be the former mayor’s running mate. But a matter of hours before the deadline for nominations, Mr Gove said he would be standing against Mr Johnson claiming that his former Leave colleague would be incapable of uniting the Conservatives following the divisions of the EU referendum.
Within five minutes of telephoning Mr Johnson to tell him of his intention to stand, Mr Gove released a statement saying he had “reluctantly” concluded that he could not support the ex-London Mayor.
His statement came just before Mr Johnson was due to host a press conference announcing his intention to stand.
“I have repeatedly said that I do not want to be prime minister. That has always been my view. But events since last Thursday have weighed heavily with me,” Mr Gove said.
“I respect and admire all the candidates running for the leadership. In particular, I wanted to help build a team behind Boris Johnson so that a politician who argued for leaving the European Union could lead us to a better future.
“But I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead. I have, therefore, decided to put my name forward for the leadership.”
On a dramatic morning, Ms May then made her pitch for the leadership saying the country needed “strong leadership” at a time of economic and political uncertainty.
She also warned that politics was not a “game” in a remark which was interpreted as a swipe at Mr Johnson.
“If you are from an ordinary working class family, life is just much harder than many people in politics realise,” she said. “Frankly, not everybody in Westminster understands what it’s like to live like this and some need to be told that it isn’t a game. It’s a serious business that has real consequences for people’s lives.”
But Mr Johnson’s supporters were dismayed and angered at the turn of events, with one describing yesterday’s events as “the biggest act of treachery I have ever seen”.
Nigel Evans, a Tory who is backing Mr Johnson, was asked whether Ms May had stabbed the former Mayor of London in the back and Mr Gove had stabbed him in the front.
He replied: “That’s about it. It makes House of Cards look like Teletubbies.”
Having digested Mr Gove’s shock announcement, Mr Johnson then used the press conference which was supposed to launch his leadership bid to tell the world he would no longer be standing, resulting in a five-way contest between Mr Gove, Ms May, Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom.
Mr Johnson said that 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,” he said.
His withdrawal from the leadership battle came amid suggestions that Mr Gove believed that Mr Johnson lacked the stomach to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU.
But his decision to stand down was condemned by the Europhile Tory grandee Lord Heseltine.
“There will be a profound sense of dismay and frankly contempt,” Lord Heselinte told BBC Radio 5live.
“He’s ripped the party apart. He’s created the greatest constitutional crisis of modern times. He knocked billions off the value of the nation’s savings.
“He’s like a general who leads his army to the sound of guns and at the sight of the battlefield abandoned the field. I have never seen so contemptible and irresponsible a situation.”
He added: “This is a free society; there’s no question of punishment. He must live with the shame of what he’s done.”
The tensions that had developed between Mr Johnson and Mr Gove were exposed when an e-mail from the Justice Secretary’s wife was accidentally sent to the wrong person.
In it, journalist Sarah Vine warned her husband that he must secure a specific guarantee about his future before making any deal with the former London mayor and should “not concede any ground”.