Theresa May announced Friday that she will step down as U.K. Conservative Party leader on June 7, admitting defeat in her attempt to take Britain out of the European Union and sparking a contest to become the country’s next prime minister.
She will stay as caretaker prime minister until the new leader is chosen, a process likely to take several weeks. The new Conservative leader will become prime minister without the need for a general election, and will take up the task of trying to secure Britain’s exit from the EU.
Her voice breaking, May said in a televised statement outside 10 Downing St. that she would soon be leaving a job that it has been “the honour of my life to hold.”
May became prime minister the month after Britons voted in June 2016 to leave the European Union, and her premiership has been consumed by the attempt to deliver on that verdict.
Now she has bowed to relentless pressure from her party to quit over her failure to take Britain out of the EU on the scheduled date of March 29. Britain is currently due to leave the EU on Oct. 31, but Parliament has yet to approve divorce terms.
“I feel as certain today as I did three years ago that in a democracy, if you give people a choice you have a duty to implement what they decide,” May said.
“I have done my best to do that. … But it is now clear to me that it is in the best interests of the country for a new prime minister to lead that effort.”
Multiple contenders are already jockeying to replace her and take up the challenge of securing Britain’s EU exit. The early front-runner is Boris Johnson, a former foreign secretary and strong champion of Brexit.
Conservative lawmakers increasingly see May as an obstacle to Britain’s EU exit, although her replacement will face the same issue: a Parliament deeply divided over whether to leave the EU, and how close a relationship to seek with the bloc after it does.
May spent more than a year and a half negotiating an exit agreement with the EU, only to see it rejected three times by Britain’s Parliament.
Pressure on May reached breaking point this week as House of Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom quit and several Cabinet colleagues expressed doubts about the bill she planned to put before Parliament in a fourth attempt to secure Parliament’s backing for her Brexit blueprint.
Leadsom, another likely contender to replace May, joined colleagues in paying tribute to the departing leader. She tweeted that May‘s “dignified speech” had been “an illustration of her total commitment to country and duty. She did her utmost, and I wish her all the very best.”
Johnson, whose relentless criticism helped push May out of the door, tweeted: “Thank you for your stoical service to our country and the Conservative Party. It is now time to follow her urgings: to come together and deliver Brexit.”
But Johnson, or any other successor, will face a tough challenge to unite a country and a Parliament still deeply divided over the country’s relationship with Europe.
The next British leader is likely to be a staunch Brexiteer, who will try to renegotiate the divorce deal, and if that fails to leave the bloc without an agreement on departure terms.
Most businesses and economists think that would cause economic turmoil and plunge Britain into recession. Parliament has voted to rule out a no-deal Brexit, though it remains the legal default option.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker praised May as “a woman of courage” for whom he has great respect.
EU spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said Juncker will“equally respect and establish working relations” with any new British leader.
But the bloc insists it will not renegotiate the Brexit deal.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte tweeted that the “agreement reached between the EU and the United Kingdom for an ordered Brexit remains on the table.”
Angela Merkel’s spokeswoman, Martina Fietz, said the German chancellor noted May‘s decision “with respect” and would continue to work closely with her successor for “an orderly exit.”
In an emotional departure speech, with close aides and her husband Philip looking on, May said she was Britain’s “second female prime minister but certainly not the last.”
She said she was leaving “with no ill-will, but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.”
As British Prime Minister Theresa May announced her departure with a Brexit plan nowhere near success, European Union leaders offered kind words. But it was quite another matter during the years of negotiations with the bloc that often produced exasperation, miscommunication and even some ridicule of her.
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, whose office led the Brexit negotiations, on Friday called May “a woman of courage for whom he has great respect,” saying he watched her resignation speech “without personal joy.”
And Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said: “I just want to express my full respect for Theresa May and for her determination.”
But they expressed plenty of frustration during the rocky ride that May engineered over nearly three years that saw good relations go sour.
After the U.K.’s 2016 referendum in which voters decided to leave the EU, officials in Europe complained that May waited almost a year to begin the negotiations and that her team was ill-prepared for the task and later turned on her after failing to make progress. They were dismayed after she called a general election in June 2017 to bolster her Conservative Party’s numbers to help the negotiations, only to lose its majority and weaken her government. That made her beholden to special Northern Ireland interests that complicated the talks.
Perhaps the lowest point came in September 2018 at Salzburg Castle when EU president Donald Tusk publicly mocked her for being too greedy in the negotiations.
“A piece of cake, perhaps? Sorry, no cherries,” Tusk wrote in an Instagram photo of him offering May a dessert tray. It was a withering, undiplomatic jibe that accused her of cherry-picking the best parts of EU legislation while discarding what she disliked.
Two months after Salzburg, May somehow agreed to a withdrawal agreement that included enough guarantees for Ireland that all 27 member states could live with it.
In December, May apparently misinterpreted a comment by Juncker at an EU summit in Brussels and tempers frayed. She confronted him, seething, “What did you call me? You called me ‘nebulous?”’
Juncker was seen shaking his head, apparently replying: “No I didn’t.”
But then came the shock for Europe that May could not sell the deal to her own Conservative Party, failing three times to get it through Parliament.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, while saying he respected May but not British politics, compared her to the hapless Black Knight in a Monty Python sketch. The knight has both arms and legs cut off, but still refuses to surrender and tells his opponent to call it a draw.
On Friday, May announced that she will step down as Conservative Party leader June 7, which will trigger a contest to choose a successor who will try to complete Brexit as the next British prime minister.
After her speech, Rutte didn’t mention the Black Knight but instead expressed his “thanks and respect for Theresa May.”
He did add however that “the deal between the EU and the United Kingdom for an orderly Brexit remains on the table.”
EU leaders could soon look back longingly at the May era.
One possible successor, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in 2016 compared the EU’s aims to those of Adolf Hitler, arguing the bloc was trying to create a superstate that mirrors the attempt of the Nazi leader to dominate the European continent. At the time, Tusk called the comment “absurd.”
Barnier, the EU negotiator, refused to contemplate what the future would hold if Johnson or any other pro-Brexit politician became the next prime minister.
“What could happen now? Let me just clearly say here in Brussels that it is for the U.K. to decide. Nobody else.” he said.
If a new prime minister withdraws Britain from the EU without an orderly transition plan, there could be high economic costs for all involved.
“It now means we enter a new phase when it comes to Brexit and a phase that may be a very dangerous one,” said Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.
“Whatever happens, we are going to hold our nerve,” Varadkar said.
Three years on, the U.K. is still in the EU, and May‘s time in 10 Downing St. is ending. She announced Friday that she will step down as Conservative leader on June 7, remaining as caretaker prime minister during a party leadership contest to choose her successor.
She will be remembered as the latest in a long line of Conservative leaders destroyed by the party’s divisions over Europe, and as a prime minister who failed in her primary mission. But history may also see her as a leader who faced a devilishly difficult situation with stubborn determination.
The daughter of a rural Anglican vicar, May attended Oxford University and worked in financial services before being elected to Parliament in 1997.
She was quiet and diligent, but also ambitious. One university friend later recalled that May hoped to be Britain’s first female prime minister, and “was quite irritated when Margaret Thatcher got there first.”
She was not a natural political campaigner; her stiff public appearances as prime minister landed her the nickname “The Maybot.” Her only touches of flamboyance are a fondness for bold outfits and accessories like brightly patterned kitten-heel shoes.
But she soon established a reputation for solid competence and a knack for vanquishing flashier rivals.
May served for six years in the notoriously thankless job of home secretary, responsible for borders, immigration and law and order. In 2016, she beat flashier and better-known politicians, including Brexit-backer Boris Johnson _ now the favourite to succeed her _ to become Britain’s second female prime minister, after Margaret Thatcher.
May was the surprise winner of a Conservative leadership contest triggered when Prime Minister David Cameron stepped down after voters rejected his advice to remain in the EU, instead voting 52%-48% to leave.
In her first speech as prime minister in July 2016, May sketched out plans for an ambitious policy agenda. She spoke of giving the poor a helping hand and lifting barriers to social mobility.
But Brexit soon crowded out almost all other policies.
Like Cameron, May had campaigned to remain, but in office she became a champion of Brexit. “Brexit means Brexit” became her mantra _ a meaningless one, said her detractors, as it emerged that undoing 45 years of ties with the bloc would be a fraught and complex process.
Attempting to win the support of Conservative Brexiteers suspicious of her past pro-EU leanings, May set out firm red lines in negotiations with the EU: Britain would leave the bloc’s single market and customs union and end the right of EU citizens to live and work in the U.K.
For a time, May‘s resolve helped her unite the warring factions of her party, which for decades has been divided over policy toward Europe.
But she then gambled on a snap election in June 2017, in an attempt to bolster her slim majority in Parliament and strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations with the EU.
The move backfired. May ran a lacklustre campaign on a platform that included plans to cut benefits to pensioners and change the way they pay for long-term care _ quickly dubbed a “dementia tax.” The Conservatives lost their majority, and May had to strike a deal with 10 lawmakers from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to stay in power.
The DUP’s support became a complication when the border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland emerged as a major issue in Brexit negotiations. The unionist party strongly opposed special measures to ensure the border remained free of customs posts and other barriers, worrying they might weaken the bonds between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
May pressed on and in November 2018 struck a divorce agreement with the EU, setting out the terms of Britain’s departure and establishing a transition period of almost two years for the two sides to work out their future relations.
All that remained was for the British and European Parliaments to ratify it. And that is where May‘s best-laid plans came undone.
Her careful compromise of an agreement was rejected by both sides of the Brexit debate. Brexiteers felt it gave too much away and left Britain bound to EU rules. Pro-EU lawmakers wanted a softer Brexit that kept close economic ties to the bloc. In January, May‘s deal was rejected by 230 votes, the biggest government defeat in British parliamentary history.
Whatever her flaws, May was no quitter. Late last year she likened herself to Geoffrey Boycott, a cricketer who was famous for his dull but effective batting style.
“Geoffrey Boycott stuck to it and he got the runs in the end,” she said.
She tried again to get her Brexit deal approved, losing by 149 votes. A third attempt narrowed the margin of defeat to 48.
She tried talks with the Labour Party about securing a compromise, but managed only to further alienate her own lawmakers with her concessions to the opposition. A promise to let Parliament vote on whether to hold a new EU membership referendum was the final straw.
By this time, a growing number of Conservatives had concluded that May was the problem and would have to leave before Brexit could be sorted out.
But she resisted the pressure, planning instead to try for a fourth time by bringing a withdrawal agreement bill to Parliament for a vote.
In the end, the pressure became irresistible.
“I think the most sympathetic reading of her premiership is that she was delivered a very poor hand by her predecessor, and she dealt with it very badly,” said Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham.
“It was unfortunate circumstances she found herself in, but she made them worse.”