Theresa May will resign the leadership of Britain’s Conservative Party on Friday, June 7th, and will remain prime minister until her successor is chosen, she announced on Friday morning.
Mrs May’s voice broke as she said it had been the “honour of my life” to “serve the country I love”.
Speaking outside 10 Downing Street in London, she said she had been Britain’s second woman prime minister, “but certainly not the last”, and she bore no ill-will to her political opponents.
She said she believed she had been right to persevere in her efforts to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. However, it was now clear to her that it was in the best interests of the country for a new prime minister to take charge, she said.
“I will resign as leader on Friday, 7th June, so a successor can be chosen.”
Mrs May will therefore still be prime minister when US president Donald Trump makes his state visit to the UK at the start of June.
Mrs May’s government postponed Friday’s planned publication of the Bill after ministers told her they could not support it.
Reacting to Mrs May’s announcement, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Mrs May had striven to chart a new future for Britain and he looked forward to working with her successor.
“I got to know Theresa May very well over the last two years. She is principled, honourable and deeply passionate about doing her best for her country, and her party,” Mr Varadkar said.
“Politicians throughout the EU have admired her tenacity, her courage and her determination during what has been a difficult and challenging time.
“Theresa May strove to chart a new future for the United Kingdom. I want to wish her the very best for the future. And I look forward to working closely with her successor.”
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said Mrs May understood Ireland’s “vulnerabilities” and the UK’s “responsibilities” . He said that was why she signed off on the Withdrawal Agreement, which he believed was a sensible compromise for everybody.
“And it’s why she was a strong defender of the need for the backstop as an insurance mechanism, as a fallback position, as a temporary arrangement while permanent arrangements can be discussed and agreed, should the backstop ever be needed,” Mr Coveney said.
“And that logic and those issues aren’t going to go away just because you have a new British prime minister who may have said things that counter or undermine Theresa May’s position in the past.”
Meanwhile, DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose party has been propping up the Conservative Party in Westminster, also paid tribute.
"After the general election in June 2017, we worked with the prime minister and her team through the confidence and supply agreement. Whilst at times there were differences in our approach, particularly on Brexit, we enjoyed a respectful and courteous relationship," Ms Foster said.
“In particular, I commend and thank the prime minister for her dutiful approach on national issues and her willingness to recognise Northern Ireland’s need for additional resources through confidence and supply arrangements.
“I pay tribute to her selfless service in the interests of the United Kingdom and wish her well for the future.”
After a premiership of almost three years, Mrs May met Graham Brady, chairman of the powerful Conservative 1922 Committee, on Friday morning to set out a timetable for her departure.
The committee’s executive held a secret ballot this week on changing party rules to allow an immediate confidence vote in the prime minister if she refuses to leave, but Sir Graham was keeping the ballots sealed until Friday’s meeting.
Mrs May, once a reluctant supporter of EU membership, won the top job in the turmoil that followed the 2016 Brexit vote, and is to step down with her central pledges – to lead the United Kingdom out of the European Union and heal its divisions – unfulfilled.
She endured repeated crises and humiliation in her effort to find a compromise Brexit deal that parliament could ratify. British politics remains deadlocked over how, when or whether to leave the EU.
The treasurer of the 1922 Committee, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, previously said he expected Mrs May would stay on as a caretaker prime minister while a successor was chosen.
“It would be much tidier if she stays on as caretaker while we go through our processes of electing a leader of the Conservative Party who will then eventually take over as prime minister,” Sir Geoffrey told the BBC before Mrs May’s announcement.
A leadership election is thought likely to last about six weeks, starting on June 10th, after Mr Trump’s state visit to Britain.
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 snap parliamentary election.
EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker “followed Theresa May’s [resignation] announcement without personal joy”, said a spokeswoman for the commission.
Mr Juncker “liked her and appreciated working with her” and “very much respected” Mrs May, who he was reported as saying was “a very courageous woman”. He would continue to remain in touch and was ready to talk to whoever succeeds her as prime minister.
The spokeswoman said the EU’s position on the non-negotiability of the Withdrawal Agreement remained, and the working assumption of the union remains that the UK will depart before October 31st. The commission, she said, has completed extensive “preparedness” planning – for a no-deal departure – and she refused to be drawn on a suggestion that the UK might now need to ask for another extension.
Speaking in Brussels, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said: “I just want to express my full respect for Theresa May and for her determination in working towards an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom. And on our side we would work exactly in that direction in the next few weeks and months.”
When asked if a new prime minister could change things, he said: “What could happen now, let me just clearly say here in Brussels that it is for the UK to decide. Nobody else.”
Manfred Weber, an ally of German chancellor Angela Merkel and the centre-right’s lead candidate to replace Mr Juncker after the European elections, said Brexit was a “total disaster” but Mrs May “fought for a stable solution and a viable deal”.
Brexit-related developments will now form part of the leaders’ dinner discussion scheduled for Tuesday, which Mrs May is expected to attend. The meeting had been planned to discuss the outcome of the European Parliament elections and specifically how to deal with the appointment of Mr Juncker’s successor as head of the Commission.
French president Emmanuel Macron praised Mrs May’s “courageous work”, and US president Donald Trump said he felt bad for her. “I like her very much, she is a good woman, she worked very hard,” Mr Trump said.
Next prime minister
The leading contenders to succeed Mrs May all want a tougher divorce deal, although the EU has said it will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Treaty it sealed in November.
Boris Johnson, the face of the official Brexit campaign in 2016, is the favourite to succeed May. Betting markets put a 40 per cent chance of Mr Johnson winning the top job in the event that a contest takes place.
Others tipped by betting markets are Dominic Raab, a Brexit supporter and former Brexit secretary. Betting markets put him on a 14 per cent chance.
Environment secretary Michael Gove, former House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt each have a 7 per cent chance, according to betting markets.
Betting markets give defence secretary Penny Mordaunt and international development secretary Rory Stewart each a 4 per cent chance of the top job, while home secretary Sajid Javid has a 3 per cent chance.
Britain’s new prime minister must move quickly to “properly” leave the EU, Mr Johnson said on Friday at a conference in Switzerland.
Mr Johnson said Mrs May had been “patient and stoical” in facing all the difficulties surrounding the country’s departure from the bloc. Additional reporting: Reuters/PA