LONDON (REUTERS) - Fighting back tears, Theresa May said on Friday (May 24) she would quit, setting up a contest that will bring a new British prime minister to power who could pursue a cleaner break with the European Union.
Mrs May’s departure will deepen the Brexit crisis as a new leader is likely to want a more decisive split, raising the chances of a confrontation with the EU and a potentially unpredictable snap parliamentary election.
Her voice cracking with emotion, Mrs May, who endured crises and humiliation in her failed effort to find a compromise Brexit deal that parliament could ratify, said she would resign as Conservative Party leader on June 7 with a leadership contest beginning the following week.
“I will shortly leave the job that has been the honour of my life to hold,” Mrs May said outside her Downing Street official residence. “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,” Mrs May said, with her husband, Philip, looking on.
Mrs May, once a reluctant supporter of EU membership, who won the top job in the turmoil that followed the 2016 Brexit referendum, 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,” Mrs May said, adding that her successor would have to find a consensus to honour the 2016 referendum result.
Mr Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said the new prime minister must hold a parliamentary election to “let the people decide our country’s future”.
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Mrs May bequeaths a deeply divided country and a political elite that is deadlocked over how, when or whether to leave the EU.
Most of the leading contenders to succeed Mrs May all want a tougher divorce deal, although the EU has said it will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement it sealed with Britain in November.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said there would be no better deal.
“This idea that a new prime minister will be a tougher negotiator and will put it up to the EU and get a much better deal for Britain? That’s not how the EU works,” Mr Coveney told Ireland’s Newstalk radio station.
An official for France’s presidency said the EU needed swift clarification from Britain on its next Brexit steps.
Sterling reversed initial gains made on Mrs May’s resignation.
Mr Boris Johnson, the face of the official Brexit campaign in 2016, is the favourite to succeed Mrs May and he thanked her for her “stoical service”. Betting markets put a 40 per cent implied probability on Mr Johnson winning the top job.
Others tipped by betting markets are Mr Dominic Raab, a Brexit supporter and former Brexit secretary, with a 14 per cent implied probability on his chances.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove, former House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt each have a 7 per cent probability, according to betting markets.
Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt and International Development Secretary Rory Stewart each have a 4 per cent chance of the top job while Home Secretary (interior minister) Sajid Javid has a 3 per cent chance.
For many Conservative lawmakers, speed is of the essence to install a new leader and try to break the Brexit impasse.
“The fight for the heart and soul of the Conservative Party officially starts now,” said Mr Andrew Bridgen, a pro-Brexit lawmaker. “We need a new PM as soon as possible and who that is will decide the future of our democracy, our country and the Conservative Party.”