London – British Prime Minister Theresa May steps down as leader of her Conservative Party on Friday, formally triggering the race for a successor who will try where she failed to deliver Brexit.
May will remain prime minister until a new leader is chosen, likely in late July, but will make no further moves on Britain’s tortuous departure from the European Union.
Brexit is still scheduled for October 31 but while the contenders thrash it out over the leadership, the project remains stalled, with the only divorce plan agreed with Brussels rejected in parliament.
May took office after the shock 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU and has spent the past three years working on a departure plan, delaying Brexit twice to try to get the deal through.
But she finally acknowledged defeat in a tearful resignation speech last month, the culmination of months of political turmoil that had slowly sapped her authority.
Eleven Conservative MPs have declared their intention to stand to replace her, including former foreign minister Boris Johnson, but some are expected to drop out before Monday’s deadline for nominations.
The winner will have only a few months to decide whether to try to salvage May’s plan, delay Brexit again — or sever ties with Britain’s closest trading partner with no agreement at all.
– Brexit Party pressure –
The government is under pressure from eurosceptic figurehead Nigel Farage, who has called for a “no deal” option and whose newly-formed Brexit Party comfortably topped the European Parliament elections last month.
His single-issue party suffered a setback after narrowly missing out on winning its first parliamentary seat, losing to Labour in a by-election in the eastern city of Peterborough on Thursday.
But despite winning, Labour’s vote share fell by 17 percent while the Conservatives’ vote plummeted by 25 percent, highlighting the task facing May’s successor.
Polling guru John Curtice told the BBC that the result showed Britain was now in a “different political world”.
Leadership contest frontrunner Johnson warned that the centre-right Conservatives “must deliver Brexit by October 31 or we risk Brexit Party votes delivering Corbyn to No 10”, referring to leftist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn getting into Downing Street.
Meanwhile leadership rival Jeremy Hunt, the foreign minister, warned that there was “no future for our party” until Britain leaves the EU.
May will formally relinquish her leadership in a private letter to her party on Friday, but no official events are planned.
She put on a brave face this week when hosting US President Donald Trump for a state visit, before joining him and other world leaders to mark 75 years since the D-Day landings.
“She remains prime minister for a good few weeks yet,” May’s spokesman insisted, noting that any successor must meet Queen Elizabeth II and assure the head of state that they have the support of enough lawmakers to take over.
She will remain as acting leader of the Conservatives.
– Johnson court victory –
Johnson, a leading campaigner in the 2016 referendum who quit the government last year over May’s plan, is among several would-be candidates who say they are willing to leave the EU without a deal if necessary.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove, another frontrunner, is open to another Brexit delay, while Hunt has said leaving with no deal is “political suicide”.
Johnson cleared one hurdle on Friday by fending off a legal action brought by a citizen who accuses him of misconduct in public office for making misleading statements during the 2016 campaign about how much money Britain sends to the EU.
Judge Michael Supperstone said the High Court was “quashing the decision of the district judge” to summons the former foreign secretary, bringing an end to the case.
Johnson’s lawyers told the court that the earlier ruling ordering him to answer the claims “erred in law” and that the former London mayor was the victim of a “politically-driven process”.
Nominations for the Conservative leadership contest open and close on Monday, and the 313 Conservative MPs — including May — will hold the first of a series of secret ballots on Thursday.
With the worst performers eliminated each time, the goal is to have two candidates left by June 20. They will then be put to a ballot of an estimated 100,000 party members.
The contest should be completed in the week commencing July 22.