Former leadership candidate makes announcement before public reading of Eton letter about Boris Johnson’s ‘gross failure’

Rory Stewart said he would stand down at the next general election. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

The former Conservative leadership candidate Rory Stewart has said he will stand down at the next general election after resigning from the Conservative party.

He announced his resignation in front of an audience of thousands on Thursday night at an event where he read out a letter in which an Eton housemaster described Boris Johnson as being guilty of “a gross failure of responsibility”.

While it was not immediately clear if his comments should be taken seriously, on Friday morning Stewart tweeted: “It’s been a great privilege to serve Penrith and the Border for the last 10 years, so it is with sadness that I am announcing that I will be standing down at the next election, and that I have also resigned from the Conservative party.”

In response to the news, Stewart’s former colleague Amber Rudd, who recently quit the cabinet and resigned the Conservative whip, tweeted: “What a loss to politics. An outstanding MP & Minister. One of the strongest speakers in Parliament. Principled, patient, thoughtful. I feel certain he’ll be back.”

Stewart – who ran to be Tory leader earlier this year but subsequently lost the whip over his opposition to a no-deal Brexit – appeared as a surprise guest at Letters Live, an evening of readings of correspondence.

At the event, Stewart told the audience that his appearance “constitutes my resignation from the Conservative party”, before reading the 1982 letter to Johnson’s father, Stanley, from his teacher Martin Hammond.

“Boris really has adopted a disgracefully cavalier attitude to his classical studies,” the letter begins.

Appearing on a bill that also featured the actors Olivia Colman, Jude Law and Benedict Cumberbatch, Stewart read: “Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility … I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

Stewart, a former cabinet minister, made an outsider run for the party leadership against Johnson earlier this year that ultimately fell well short of success but catapaulted him to public prominence.

He had already hinted that he might leave the party in the weeks since he lost the whip, along with 20 others, as a result of rebelling against the government to oppose a no-deal Brexit in a crucial House of Commons vote. While that step pushed him and others, including Philip Hammond and Ken Clarke, out of the parliamentary grouping and seemed likely to mean their future deselection as Conservative candidates, it did not mean they were automatically kicked out of the national party.

Speaking at the GQ Awards in September, he said: “You’ve made me Politician Of The Year and I’m no longer a politician.”

At a philosophy and music festival, he told the audience that if Johnson succeeded in taking the UK out of the EU this month he would resign. “It would be the end of my political project.”

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