B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell is stepping down and has asked his party to hold a leadership convention.

Campbell made the announcement during a surprise news conference Wednesday morning in Vancouver, accompanied by his wife and children.

Campbell's leadership of the provincial Liberal Party had been under attack since his introduction of the Harmonized Sales Tax and there were rumours that several Liberal MLAs were planning on calling for Campbell to step down at an upcoming caucus meeting.

Campbell's popularity had plunged to as low as nine per cent in some recent polls, and despite attempts to reverse his political fortunes with a cabinet shuffle and a 15 per cent provincial income tax cut last week, he was unable to fend off repeated calls for his resignation.

"After considerable soul-searching and discussion with my family, I have decided to ask the B.C. Liberal Party executive to hold a leadership convention at the earliest possible date to select a new leader for our party," Campbell said in his short speech.

"Over the last few weeks, our government has continued to move forward with initiatives that will create jobs, build a stronger economy and support families across British Columbia," he said.

"Yet it is clear to me that those initiative are being overshadowed. When public debate becomes focused on one person, instead of what is in the best interest of British Columbians, we have lost sight about what is important. When that happens, it's time for change."

Cabinet members said they expect Campbell will stay on as premier until he is replaced by the party at a convention.

East Kootenay MLA Bill Bennett was the first to openly criticize Campbell's leadership, but after the announcement Bennett had nothing but good things to say about the premier.

"He obviously wasn't doing so well in the polls, so he concluded the best thing he could do for the province and party was step aside and it's an honourable act," he said.

Bennett said Campbell came to the conclusion he needed to step down on his own and was not pushed by a disgruntled caucus.

Gordon Wilson, the last B.C. Liberal Party leader before Campbell, said the premier's aggressive economic agenda may have cost him the job.

"He succeeded in turning the economy of the province into something that generally managed us well for the first part of this decade," said Wilson.

"I think where he went wrong — where he went seriously wrong — I think was when he started to dispose of public assets. And I think that's when people initially started to get concerned about the sale of BC Rail, dismantling of Hydro and those sorts of things," said Wilson.

'His time had come': NDP

NDP Leader Carole James issued a statement thanking the premier for his service to the province, but said even with Campbell gone, the HST remains.

"On behalf of B.C.’s Official Opposition, I want to thank Premier Gordon Campbell for his many years of public service and for the contribution he has made to British Columbia. And I want to offer special recognition to his family who have also made the sacrifices associated with public life," said James.

"Premier Campbell made the right decision today. It’s become increasingly clear the B.C. Liberals have broken trust with the people they were elected to serve. No issue shows that more clearly than the HST.

"But we must also remember that all B.C. Liberals played a part in the HST deception. All B.C. Liberals played a part in the slashing of public services, in the growth of social inequality we’ve seen in B.C. over the past decade," she said.

NDP MLA Norm Macdonald said it was a bit of a surprise, but also obvious the premier had to quit.

"Like most British Columbians, I think his time had come and his leaving is a good thing," said MacDonald.

"This past year the government has not operated effectively. They have stumbled from mistake to mistake and there is a cost to that for all British Columbians, so I think he needed to go," he said.

But Macdonald added that Campbell gave most of his life to public service and he should be thanked by British Columbians for that.

Leadership hopefuls yet to step forward

After the announcement, Campbell's cabinet ministers said they only learned of the premier's plans half an hour before the public announcement.

When asked who potential successors might be, cabinet members presented a united front saying it was a day for praising Campbell's 26 years in public office and three terms as premier of B.C., and not speculating about who might replace him.

Finance Minister Colin Hansen did say he had no plans to seek the leadership of the party.