LONDON • Fighting back tears, Mrs Theresa May said yesterday she would quit, setting up a contest that will install a new British prime minister who could pursue a cleaner break with the European Union.
Mrs 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 a 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 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, 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 Mrs May as she fought back tears.
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," she said, adding that her successor would have to find a consensus to honour the 2016 vote result.
Mr 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".
Mrs May 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 Oct 31.
Most of the leading contenders to succeed Mrs May want a tougher divorce deal, although the EU has said it will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement it sealed with Britain last 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 despite European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker learning of Mrs May's resignation "without personal joy".
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney underlined the bloc's stance that there would be no better Brexit 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 is not how the EU works," Mr Coveney told Ireland's Newstalk radio station.
French President Emmanuel Macron hailed Mrs May for her "courageous work" in seeking to implement Brexit in the interests of her country while showing respect for Britain's European partners, but wanted to see a "rapid clarification" over Brexit.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted Mrs May's decision "with respect", saying that they shared a "good and trusting" working relationship, according to her spokesman.
The British pound swung back and forth yesterday on news of the resignation, trading slightly higher on the day, and British government bond yields edged off near-two-year lows.
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".
Mr Johnson said yesterday that Britain should be prepared to walk out of the EU without a deal.
"We will leave the EU on Oct 31, deal or no deal," he told an economic conference in Switzerland.
"The way to get a good deal is to prepare for a no-deal," he said.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE