LONDON: Theresa May is set to announce a timetable for her resignation as UK prime minister, plunging British politics into turmoil and putting the fate of Brexit in doubt.
May plans to quit as Tory leader with an election to choose her replacement beginning on June 10, according to people familiar with the matter. There is likely to be a crowded field of candidates and the contest will be difficult to predict.
Party bosses hope to have a new leader in place by the end of July. The result will shape the direction of Brexit and all options – from leaving with no deal to canceling the divorce – are now back on the table.
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May’s decision heralds the end of a turbulent, three-year premiership that’s been marked by bitter divisions within her party and across Britain over how to leave the European Union.
The UK was due to withdraw from the EU on March 29. But May’s inability to get the divorce deal she negotiated in Brussels approved in Britain’s deadlocked Parliament has forced her to delay exit day until October.
May’s Tory colleague and friend Damian Green paid tribute to her. “Seldom have we seen a prime minister more devoted to public service and it’s ending this way,” he told BBC Radio on Friday. “The overwhelming feeling I have today is sadness.”
With May set to announce her own departure, it will be for her successor to define the course of Brexit. The current favorite is pro-Leave campaigner Boris Johnson, the UK’s former Foreign Secretary, who favors a quick, sharp split the EU. The pound is on a losing streak as investors weigh up the prospect of a no-deal exit.
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May has little choice but to set a date if she is to avoid the humiliation of being hounded from office. She’s facing an ultimatum from her own Tory members of Parliament, many of whom want to replace her as soon as possible.
They are angry with her handling of Brexit and fearful the party will suffer a crushing defeat in the European Parliament elections at the hands of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
Tory officials were considering changing the party’s rules to hold a vote to force May out within days. Instead she has decided to go voluntarily, after President Donald Trump’s state visit to Britain, one of the people said. She wants to remain as a caretaker prime minister while her successor is chosen in a contest that could take six weeks.
The timetable is subject to being agreed with Graham Brady, the senior Conservative official who oversees the party’s leadership contests, at a meeting on Friday, the people said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The final crisis of May’s beleaguered leadership began on Tuesday when she announced her last-gasp plan to persuade members of Parliament to back the Brexit deal she spent two years negotiating with the EU. It was instantly rejected, leaving Britain’s divorce from the bloc in disarray and May with nowhere to go.
Pro-Brexit Conservatives, including ministers in her Cabinet, spent much of Wednesday plotting how to kill off May’s plan. Their main target was to stamp on her idea of letting Parliament vote to allow a second referendum to ratify the terms of the UK’s exit.
On Wednesday night, high-profile minister Andrea Leadsom quit May’s Cabinet in protest at the plans. Other ministers including Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt – made it clear they didn’t support May’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
That draft law which includes the referendum promise was due to be put to a vote in the House of Commons in the first week of June but has now been put on ice. May would reflect on what she’s been told by her colleagues, one person familiar with the matter said.
Earlier on Thursday, May seemed to be digging in, with her spokesman insisting she hadn’t given up on delivering Brexit. Government Whip Mark Spencer told parliament in the morning that May still planned to publish the Withdrawal Bill in the first week of June. As Thursday went on, it became clear her position couldn’t last.
“Politics is a nasty sometimes brutal, ghastly business,” said Iain Duncan Smith, a Brexiter and former Tory leader. “She has no confidence, not just within her party but in the cabinet too.”