Theresa May, British prime minister announced Friday that she plans to resign, after trying — and failing — to steer the United Kingdom through its divorce with the European Union. While this brings a close to her beleaguered premiership, it adds even more chaos to UK politics as the country tries to finalize its exit from the EU.
May will not leave office immediately. She will step aside as leader of the Conservative Party on June 7, which will trigger a leadership contest to replace her on June 10. But she will stay on as prime minister until her successor is selected. Which point that person will become the prime minister without the need for a general election.
A new prime minister was “in the best interests of the country,” May said in a statement in front of London’s 10 Downing Street. “It is and always will remain a matter of deep regret to me that I have not been able to deliver Brexit.”
After calling on ministers to compromise on Brexit issues in the weeks ahead, she concluded her address while fighting back tears. “I will shortly leave the job that has been the honor of my life to hold… I do so with no ill will but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.”
May will step down amid intensifying pressure from Conservative members of Parliament. Many of whom have been agitating for her to leave office after her failure to deliver a Brexit deal that could satisfy her party.
May has served as prime minister for nearly three years, ascending to leadership shortly after the 2016 Brexit referendum and the resignation of then-Prime Minister David Cameron. When she took over, May vowed to deliver Brexit. Though what that meant in practical terms ended up being far more complicated. And it ultimately doomed her premiership.
The only thing surprising about May’s resignation is that it took this long
The countdown to May’s departure began the moment she brought back the Brexit deal negotiated with the EU late last year, which both her party and the opposition Labour Party hated. When she put the deal before Parliament in January, MPs defeated it by a stunning margin of 230 votes — the largest defeat for a prime minister in modern British history.
May failed again on a second attempt in March. Before making her third attempt, she tried a new tactic to get her deal passed: promising to resign if it succeeded. Conservatives who disliked her more than they disliked her deal went along with it, but May still couldn’t muster the votes to pass the plan that would take the UK out of the EU.
The political stalemate forced her to twice seek an extension of the original March 29 Brexit deadline to avoid a no-deal Brexit. That new deadline is now set for October 31, 2019, months after the original departure date.
May weathered this political turmoil as best she could, but the Brexit delays infuriated the hardcore Brexiteers in her party, and they vocally, and unashamedly, sought ways to oust her. (May survived a no-confidence vote in December 2018, and the current rules barred the party from trying again for a full year.)
Then, last week, May reached a deal with Conservatives MPs: She would set a date for her departure after Parliament approved her Brexit deal (on the fourth try) and the related legislation required to get the UK out of the EU. That vote was expected in early June.
But even that gambit derailed. May presented a “new” strategy for her Brexit deal this week, in a last-ditch effort to win votes. Unfortunately, it didn’t actually contain much new material. And the new compromises it did offer were geared to win over Remainers, most notably with the chance to hold a second Brexit referendum.
For the most hardcore Brexiteers in May’s party, it was an unequivocal betrayal. It also effectively assured May had no chance to persuade Parliament to back her Brexit plan. Under this intensifying pressure — including from her own cabinet ministers — May really had no other choice other than to step down.
May’s departure will set off a leadership contest within the Conservative Party
A slew of candidates is already jockeying to take over as Conservative leader and become the next prime minister. Including Boris Johnson, May’s former foreign secretary who is staunchly pro-Brexit. Other former (and current) members of May’s cabinet are also expected to compete.
May managed to survive as long as she did in part because Conservatives couldn’t agree on anyone better. More moderate Conservatives worried a hardcore Brexiteer might steer the UK out of the EU without a deal in place at all. Brexiteers fretted that a more moderate party member might seek an even softer Brexit.
Brexiteers might have a slight edge in the post-May world. They’re already under pressure from a new Brexit Party that’s pulling some voters away from the Conservatives. But these divisions within the party aren’t entirely gone. And will likely make this leadership contest a bruising battle. One that will consume a very big slice of summer ahead of a fall Brexit deadline.
In a speech earlier this week, May acknowledged that “the challenge of taking Brexit from the simplicity of the choice on the ballot paper to the complexity of resetting the country’s relationship with 27 of its nearest neighbors was always going to be huge.”
That won’t change, no matter who the next prime minister is. Whoever takes May’s place will inherit the still-unresolved Brexit crisis and face the same complex reality she did.