U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has resigned following her party’s revolt over her latest Brexit plan.
She will step down on June 7, with a leadership contest to begin the following week to find a replacement by July. A caretaker Prime Minister—unknown at this point—will assume responsibilities until then.
The Prime Minister had already said she would not contest the next general election following a failed move by her own party to oust her, but recently she has faced more and more calls to give a precise date as to when she might step aside, other than vague assurances that it would be once Brexit was delivered.
May’s luck finally ran out after she gave a speech Tuesday outlining the fourth version of her EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill. With the content still largely intact from the first version of the proposed deal, Cabinet colleagues and senior party members immediately said that they would not back it, forcing her to reschedule its debate in the Commons within 24 hours of announcing it.
Following her resignation, the Bill is now unlikely to see the light of day.
In an emotional speech, May said that it is—and will always remain—a “matter of deep regret” that she has not been able to deliver Brexit, but that she had done “everything…to convince MPs to back that deal.”
To succeed, she said that her successor “will have to find consensus in Parliament where I have not. Such a consensus can only be reached if those on all sides of the debate are willing to compromise”—a revelation that came to her only in the last six weeks of her three-year stint as Prime Minister and after three failed attempts at harvesting support for her EU-U.K. deal.
“Westminster has already squandered far too much time going around in circles on Brexit … A new Prime Minister must work to avert a messy and disorderly exit from the EU.”
Adam Marshall, Director-General, The British Chambers of Commerce
Thirty-six government ministers have resigned during May’s tenure—21 of them over her approach to Brexit. The latest resignation came the day after May unveiled details of her fourth attempt to garner MP’s cross-party support, when Commons’ leader—and potential leadership contender—Andrea Leadsom said she could not back the Bill.
What next for Brexit?
Following May’s resignation, another Brexit extension seems likely. A new (unelected) Prime Minister will not take the reins until July, and Westminster takes its summer recess at the end of that month for six weeks. Members of Parliament are then back for just three days before taking another three weeks off for party conference season. MPs do not take their seats back at Westminster until after the first week of October, which leaves just three weeks to sort out the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.
While it is technically possible that the new government either canvasses enough support for the existing Withdrawal Agreement Bill before Oct. 31 or gets backing for a “no deal” Brexit, both scenarios appear extremely remote; instead, some form of compromise option looks more likely or perhaps even an attempt to renegotiate a better/different deal with the European Union now that there is a new Prime Minister in charge. A general election, however, or even a second referendum on whether the United Kingdom proceeds with Brexit at all, cannot be ruled out.
European leaders have been quick to reaffirm what their collective opinion is: that the other 27 EU leaders have approved the deal as it stands and that there are no plans to re-open its terms. On Thursday, chief EU spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters: “Our position is clear: The divorce agreement, the withdrawal agreement, cannot be reopened, cannot be renegotiated.” Speaking after May’s resignation, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that there was “no change” in the EU’s position.
Business, meanwhile, wants U.K. politicians to resolve Brexit quickly. Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, the U.K.’s most influential business lobby group, said the Prime Minister’s resignation “must be now be a catalyst for change. There can be no plan for Britain without a plan for Brexit. Winner-takes-all politics is not working. Jobs and livelihoods are at stake. Business and the country need honesty. Nation must be put ahead of party, prosperity ahead of politics. Compromise and consensus must refind their voice in Parliament.”
Adam Marshall, director-general of business group the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “Westminster has already squandered far too much time going around in circles on Brexit … A new Prime Minister must work to avert a messy and disorderly exit from the EU.”
In terms of who might assume the Conservative Party leadership, the bookies’ favorites are hardline Brexiteers Boris Johnson, followed by former Brexit Secretary Dominc Raab, and Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Michael Gove. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is currently fourth favorite and is the only one of the pack to have been a “remainer” during the referendum campaign.