(Bloomberg) -- Cabinet Minister Michael Gove said he was standing down as a member of Parliament, adding to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s struggles during the opening days of campaigning ahead of the July 4 general election.

While Gove, 56, said he still supported Sunak, he argued that the toll of being a politician meant it was time for “a new generation” to lead. The key Brexit-backer joins a growing exodus of almost 80 Tories who have said they are quitting at the election, exceeding the departures ahead of Labour’s landslide victory in 1997.

His departure will heap scrutiny on Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt, who represents nearby South West Surrey and is facing a similar uphill reelection fight. 

Gove’s decision comes at a critical time for Sunak and the ruling Conservatives as they try to narrow the 20-point gap to Keir Starmer’s opposition Labour Party. The prime minister shocked Westminster by calling a summer election — he spent months indicating he would wait to the autumn — but his campaign has got off to a stuttering start and drawn open criticism from across his party.

The steady stream of Conservative MPs opting to quit rather than fight the election is adding to the challenge. There are few Tories bigger than Gove, who has represented Surrey Heath, southwest of London, since 2005 and had a substantial 31% majority when the seat was last contested in the 2019. It’s considered part of the so-called Blue Wall of safe Tory districts.

Yet Gove’s departure will still fuel the perception that the Conservative Party’s slump in the opinion polls has put those areas at risk. Much of the Tory anger directed at Sunak since he took over from Liz Truss in October 2022 is driven by his failure to lift the party’s support.

Sunak’s decision to go to the polls early has triggered fears that he’s leading the party to one or more “Portillo” moments — when a Tory big beast loses a safe seat in an election whitewash — named for the time Cabinet Minister Michael Portillo lost in Enfield Southgate in 1997.

As Westminster scours for likely candidates this time, much of the focus has fallen on Surrey, where the Tories are coming under pressure from the Liberal Democrats. Hunt, whose district will be divided up at the election under boundary changes to reflect population shifts, has said he will stand in the new Godalming and Ash constituency

The chancellor is widely thought to be at risk of what would be a high-profile defeat on election night. Former Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab also featured on most “Portillo” lists, but he announced he would step down a year ago.

“Conservative politicians are fleeing the blue wall in their droves,” Liberal Democrat spokesperson Sarah Olney said after Gove’s announcement. “The drumbeat of Conservative MPs stepping down has been getting louder as the days go by — now it’s deafening.”

Gove is one of the longest-serving and prominent cabinet ministers of the last 14 years of Conservative governments. A close ally of David Cameron and George Osborne, he served in the former’s cabinet as education secretary. 

Yet he is more widely known for his role in Brexit. Breaking from his friend Cameron, Gove led the campaign to quit the European Union with Boris Johnson. When the Leave side unexpectedly won the 2016 referendum, Gove briefly ran Johnson’s campaign to become Conservative leader and UK prime minister. 

But in one of the most dramatic moments in an era of British politics that has had no shortage of them, Gove famously turned against Johnson before seeking the leadership himself. In the end, it was Theresa May who became leader, triggering years of Conservative Party wrangling over how to implement Brexit. 

Former Cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom, best known for challenging May in 2016, also said late Friday that she would step down as an MP.  

Beyond Brexit, Gove is known as a politician who — often controversially — drove through major change in the departments he ran. As education secretary, he fell out with teachers over changes to exams and targets.

Most recently, Gove has had responsibility for housing and leveling up in Sunak’s cabinet. But in recent months he has struggled to win cabinet approval for his plans to bolster leaseholders’ rights, while his Renters’ Reform Bill to ban “no-fault evictions” was dropped from the final list of legislation the government will try to push through Parliament before the election.

(Updates with pressure on Sunak starting in fifth paragraph.)

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