Speaking at a press conference on Monday afternoon, Leijonborg said he did not have sufficient support to stay in the job.
“I will remain in the party and the government until a new leader is chosen,” he said, adding that he had not thought about whether he would stay on as education minister after his resignation as party leader.
“That question is down to my successor. My successor could need that position,” he said.
Leijonborg, the longest-serving leader of a party currently represented in parliament, said his ten years in the job had been “fantastic.” He reminded journalists that he had led the party to two of its three best-ever election results.
“I was viewed as dull when I was elected, it was said that I faded into the background. But I have been involved in controversial and important battles,” he said, citing debates over integration policy.
Leijonborg’s resignation follows months of intense criticism of his leadership by fellow Liberals. Support for the party collapsed ahead of September’s election, its share of the vote falling to 7.5 percent from 13.4 percent in 2002.
The news on Monday morning that the party’s Stockholm district had become the latest to withdraw its support for Leijonborg’s leadership made his position untenable. He is likely to remain education minister for the time being.
The Liberals were severely damaged in the election campaign after it was revealed that a member of LUF, the Liberal youth movement, had been logging into the Social Democrats’ internal network and passing on information to senior staffers. The crisis led to the resignation of party secretary Johan Jakobsson, who is now on trial in Stockholm along with other senior Liberals.
The prospect of a protracted leadership campaign in the Liberal Party is unlikely to be welcomed by the leaders of the other three parties in the ruling centre-right Alliance for Sweden. The campaign itself could prove a distraction at a time when the opposition is leading in the polls.
Among those frequently named as potential replacements for Leijonborg are Schools Minister Jan Björklund and Europe Minister Cecilia Malmström.
Leijonborg, who has led the Liberals since 1997, is the longest-serving leader in any of those parties currently represented in Sweden’s parliament. Under his leadership, the party has taken moved to the right on issues such as crime and education, pushing for extra police and more grading in schools.
Jörgen Hermansson, professor in political science at Uppsala University, told The Local that the Alliance would not be threatened by the change of leader.
“There is no faction within the Liberal Party which wants to be outside the Alliance. There is no strong left-liberal faction these days. Maybe there are some in the party who would like it to be the Alliance’s left-wing faction.”
Leijonborg’s position in the cabinet and his position as party leader are formally separate, Hermansson pointed out. But, he said, tensions could arise if Björklund was made leader, as he would be in a department led by Leijonborg.
“If it’s Jan Björklund and Leijonborg insists on staying as a minister, it’s not hard to imagine it would be tricky.”