B.C. Energy Minister Blair Lekstrom has unexpectedly resigned from cabinet and quit the Liberal Party because of public opposition to the coming HST.

Lekstrom, who represents the riding of Peace River South in northeastern B.C., made the surprise announcement in a statement released on Friday morning, before flying home to his riding.

"It is clear to me that the residents of Peace River South are opposed to the harmonized sales tax and are unhappy with the way in which our government moved forward with this policy," Lekstrom said in a statement released Friday morning.

"This is not about being right or wrong; in fact, I firmly believe that government is making a decision they believe will help the province, but as we have been unable to bring the public along, I acknowledge there is a need to re-evaluate this decision," he said.

"In light of the widespread opposition to the HST, I believe it would be prudent to bring the move toward the HST to a halt and immediately engage British Columbians in a dialogue about our taxation policy.

"This is a major tax policy shift, and it is time to engage British Columbians with a series of discussions about our province's future."

The 12 percent Harmonized Sales Tax is due to come into effect on July 1 in B.C., replacing the both the PST and GST.

Resignation surprised Campbell

Premier Gordon Campbell said he respects Lekstrom's decision, but was disappointed and surprised by it.

"I would have preferred him to stay with this, but he felt personally he could not remain," said Campbell.

"I understand that and respect it. We clearly disagree with regard to this so those are the steps we have taken."

Lekstrom raised the issue at cabinet on Wednesday and then with caucus on Friday morning before submitting his letter of resignation, Campbell said.

Lekstrom said he would sit as an independent in the B.C. legislature, joining the only other independent MLA, Vicki Huntington, who represents the riding of Delta South.

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B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell says the Liberal Party failed to sell the HST to voters. ((CBC))

The news comes as a blow to Campbell, who admitted to party supporters at a fundraising dinner on Thursday night in Vancouver that the party failed to sell the harmonized sales tax.

More than 600,000 voters in B.C. have signed a petition intended to strike down the unpopular tax, which is scheduled to be implemented on July 1.

But the premier confirmed the government has no intention of backing out of the HST plan, since it has already started spending the money it received from Ottawa as part of the deal.

B.C. NDP leader Carole James said Lekstrom has done the right thing, and she encouraged other Liberals to follow his lead.

Lekstrom's resignation is a political boost for James, who was just about to embark on a three-week tour of the province's interior and the northwest coast in an attempt to derail the HST.

Ex-minister will stay on as MLA

Lekstrom, who was a leader in Campbell's cabinet, said he will stay on as MLA for Peace River South.

The former mayor of Dawson Creek was first elected in 2001 to represent the Peace River South riding, which borders Alberta.

The conservative rural riding has long been home to a movement to get rid of any provincial sales tax and more recently has become a hotbed of opposition to the HST.

In May, Lekstrom told CBC News he was feeling the heat from voters in his riding. 

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This artist's rendering shows what the Site C dam could look like by 2020. ((BC Hydro))

"Is there concern in my riding? Most definitely there is," he said.

"The issue that I hear more than anything is not so much about the tax, as saying, 'Gosh, we thought this wasn't on the agenda before.' And it wasn't," he said during the May 20 interview.

Lekstrom, who was considered a rising star in the Liberal cabinet, was responsible for leading the push to build the controversial Site C Hydro electric dam in his riding, and implementing the equally controversial Clean Energy Act.

Campbell has already appointed Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett as the new minister of energy, mines and petroleum resources.

With files from The Canadian Press