Facing his lowest popularity levels since taking office in 2001, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said Wednesday he will step down as the province's premier.

Campbell told reporters at a press conference outside his Vancouver cabinet office he will ask the party to have a B.C. leadership convention as soon as possible because too much voter anger has bogged down the BC Liberals' ability to get the job done.

"We've lost sight of what's important and when that happens it's time for a change," Campbell said, adding that he came to the decision after a great deal of soul searching and discussion with his family.

"I believe this is the right thing for the party. It's time for a new person to lead the province."

The premier faces a caucus meeting Thursday, which some have described as an emergency summit. He said the decision to leave office is in the best interests of the party, the province and the provincial government.

"At a time like this, everyone's attention should be focused on helping our economy rebound from the global recession and move forward with an agenda that families can see is in their long-term interests," he said.

Campbell thanked his family and his wife Nancy for their love and support throughout his leadership.

"Politics can be a very nasty business," he said. "It's been quite a run. It's been a privilege."

In a statement sent from Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper thanked Campbell for his longtime service, saying he had returned the province to prosperity in tough economic times and been a great host during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

"Canada and her athletes had no better champion, or more ardent supporter than Gordon Campbell. My enduring memory of Gordon will be with his arms raised cheering our athletes, his hands covered with those famous Canada mittens while passionately waving the Canadian flag," Harper said.

Federal Trade Minister Stockwell Day, also the MP for the B.C. riding of Okanagan-Coquihalla in B.C., echoed Harper's sentiments.

"I've dealt with Premier Campbell on dozens of issues. On every one of them he was unfailing in putting first and foremost the interest of British Columbians and the interest of the province," he said.

Party politics

Meanwhile, B.C. New Democrat leader and official opposition Carole James told CTV News she believes Campbell made the right decision to step down.

James said Campbell expected he would get increased support with last week's televised address and income tax cut, but British Columbians have become increasingly disillusioned with the party.

"They've lost trust with the people of British Columbia. And that doesn't sit with Gordon Campbell alone. That sits with all of the B.C. Liberals," James said.

James, who has suffered her own image problems within the NDP party, said she's ready to stand against anyone the Liberals put up as his replacement but that the party should expect to face more flak about the harmonized sales tax.

"Every one of those B.C. Liberals stood up when it came to the HST and supported bringing it in without any consultation and without telling the public the truth," she said.

"They can change leaders but it's not going to change the record that they have."

All time low

Campbell's popularity is at an all-time low in the province. A recent poll from Angus Reid Strategies found only nine per cent of British Columbians support him. It was the lowest popularity rating the pollsters had seen in four decades for any Canadian politician.

The introduction of the highly controversial harmonized sales tax was nothing less than a disaster for Campbell's party this summer. The introduction of the HST saw the premier's popularity drop to single digits.

Last week, Campbell announced a 15-per-cent income tax cut in a $240,000 televised speech that was panned as a last-ditch effort to buy off voters fed up with the party.

At today's press conference, Campbell said his recent initiatives to strengthen the economy, including the income tax cut and improvements to the education system, were for the most part pushed aside by the public because his unpopularity.

"It is clear to me that those initiatives 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 a change," he said.

Campbell faced a leadership review at the party's annual convention in the Okanagan in late November.

Trouble in the ranks

Within the Liberal Party ranks, some caucus members have recently started to publically criticize their esteemed leader. Just two weeks ago, his energy minister spoke out against his handling of a cabinet shuffle.

Bill Bennett, who saw some of his own portfolio handed over to an expanded Forests, Mines and Lands Ministry, told a newspaper that Campbell made the cabinet changes without consulting his elected colleagues and pointed out the plummeting popularity of the Liberals as evidence that it might be time for a different approach.

Campbell's decision not to discipline Bennett for his dissent puzzled political insiders, who speculated that he might no longer have the political punch to punish the minister the way he once could have.

Political analysts say the writing has been on the wall for the premier's exit for many months.

"It was just a matter of time," Simon Fraser University professor Doug McArthur told ctvbc.ca. "He had lost the trust of the people."

McArthur said the Liberal Party could not recover from the damage he'd created with the HST and he had to go right away or face mass dissension from within his own ranks.

"He wanted to wait until the New Year I think but the party would have ripped him apart," he said.

A shock to the party

B.C. Liberal ministers CTV News spoke with Wednesday said the resignation came as a shock and a surprise.

"People are, I think, astounded by this and reflecting immediately on the power of Gordon Campbell as a leader and just what he's done for the province," Tourism and Trade Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said.

"We're all very disappointed. That said, we also recognize that we need to continue as a government," Education Minister George Abbott added.

Caucus member John van Dongen said the party now faces an uphill battle.

"We have learned to rely on the premier as leader. He has provided very stable leadership to the caucus and cabinet and to the people of British Columbia and the world will be a different place without that stability, that anchor, in B.C."

Bill Bennett, whose own public scuffles with the premier grabbed headlines this month, said his decision to step down is in the best interests of the BC Liberal party and the province. He called the act "honourable and courageous."

"You can see many leaders in the past who have refused to do what Gordon Campbell did today. It was a very selfless act on his part," Bennett told CTV News.

Bennett said the party faces a tough time choosing a credible alternative to defeat the provincial New Democrats in 2013.

"We have to think of the future now."

Campbell was elected for a third term in May 2009.

A spokesperson for the BC Liberals said the executive has 28 days to hold a meeting, and then six months to set a convention date.  Chad Peterson said the party's annual convention in Penticton won't be a leadership convention.