Fighting back tears, Theresa May said she would quit after failing to deliver Brexit, setting up a contest that will install a new British prime minister who could pursue a cleaner break with the European Union.
May’s departure deepens the Brexit crisis as a new leader, who should be in place by the end of July, is likely to want a more decisive split, raising the chances of a confrontation with the EU and potentially a snap parliamentary election.
Former foreign minister Boris Johnson, the favourite to replace May, was first out of the blocks, saying Britain should be prepared to leave the EU without a deal to force the bloc to offer a “good deal”.
Current foreign minister Jeremy Hunt also confirmed he would run for the leadership just hours after May, her voice cracking with emotion, said she would resign as Conservative Party leader on Friday, June 7, setting up a contest to succeed her.
“I will shortly leave the job that has been the honour of my life to hold,” May said outside her Downing Street official residence with her husband, Philip, looking on. “The second female prime minister, but certainly not the last.
“I do so with no ill will but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love,” said the usually reserved May.
May steps down with her central pledge – to lead the United Kingdom out of the bloc and heal its divisions – unfulfilled.
“It is, and will always remain, a matter of deep regret to me that I have not been able to deliver Brexit,” May said, adding that her successor would have to find a consensus to honour the 2016 referendum result.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said the new prime minister must hold an election to “let the people decide our country’s future”.
May, who endured several crises in her failed effort to find a compromise Brexit deal that parliament could ratify, bequeaths a deeply divided country and a political elite that is deadlocked over how, when or whether to leave the EU. The latest deadline for Britain’s departure is October 31.
Most of the leading contenders to succeed May want a tougher divorce deal. The EU has said it will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement it sealed with Britain in November.
Spain said it now seemed almost impossible to avoid a so-called hard Brexit, or clean break from the EU, and the bloc signalled there would be no change on the agreement.
Politicians in her party and abroad paid tribute to her determination. French President Emmanuel Macron praised May’s “courageous work” and US President Donald Trump said he felt bad for her.
“I like her very much, she is a good woman, she worked very hard,” Trump said.
Johnson, the face of the official Brexit campaign in 2016, is the favourite to succeed May.
For many Conservative MPs, speed is of the essence to install a new leader to try to break the Brexit impasse.
The governing party said it would move quickly to try to end the leadership contest before parliament breaks for a summer holiday, a so-called recess which usually falls in late July.
ODDS ON OTHER LEADERSHIP CONTENDERS:
Boris Johnson – 40 per cent
Dominic Raab, a Brexit supporter – 14 per cent
Environment Secretary Michael Gove – 7 per cent
Former House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom – 7 per cent
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt – 7 per cent
Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt – 4 per cent
International Development Secretary Rory Stewart – 4 per cent
Home Secretary Sajid Javid – 3 per cent