UK's May quits as party leader, starting succession race

Published: June 7, 2019
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British Prime Minister Theresa May. PHOTO: REUTERS

British Prime Minister Theresa May. PHOTO: REUTERS

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 has relinquished control over the direction of Britain’s tortuous departure from the European Union.

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Brexit is still scheduled for October 31 but while her rivals thrash it out, the project remains stuck, with the only divorce plan agreed with Brussels stuck in parliament.

May took office after the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU and has spent the past three years working on the plan, delaying Brexit twice to try to get it through.

But she finally acknowledged defeat in a tearful resignation speech last month, the culmination of months of political turmoil that has slowly sapped all her authority.

Eleven Conservative MPs are currently vying 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.

They are under pressure from eurosceptic figurehead Nigel Farage, who has called for a “no deal” option and whose Brexit party topped European polls last month.

His party made a strong showing in a by-election for the British parliament in the eastern city of Peterborough on Thursday but failed in its goal of winning its first MP.

However, the pro-European Liberal Democrats, who want to reverse Brexit, also performed well in the European polls, highlighting how divided Britain remains over its future.

May will formally relinquish her leadership in a private letter to her party on Friday, but no official events are planned to mark the day.

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.

But Trump used the trip to speak with Johnson and other candidates to replace her, emphasising where the political power in Britain now lies.

“She remains prime minister for a good few weeks yet,” May’s spokesperson insisted, noting that any successor must meet Queen Elizabeth II and assure the monarch they have the support of enough lawmakers to take over.

He said May would focus on domestic issues, but “in relation to Brexit, the prime minister said it wouldn’t be for her to take this process forward”.

Trump has been highly critical of May’s Brexit strategy and ahead of his visit to Britain, urged her successor to leave the bloc with no deal if necessary.

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 do this.

But Environment Secretary Michael Gove, another frontrunner, is open to other Brexit delay, while Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said leaving with no deal is “political suicide”.

Trump had a phone call with Johnson this week and met both Hunt and Farage, although a planned meeting with Gove never materialised.

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Nominations for the contest must be submitted on Monday, and the 313 Conservative MPs — including May – will hold the first of a series of secret ballots on June 13.

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 by the week commencing July 22.

Brexit Party’s first seat

Britain’s opposition Labour Party narrowly held on to a parliamentary seat in eastern England on Friday, seeing off a challenge from Nigel Farage’s insurgent Brexit Party to win by less than 700 votes.

The Brexit Party, which only launched in April, swept to victory in the United Kingdom’s European Parliament election last month, riding a wave of anger over Prime Minister Theresa May’s failure to deliver Brexit on time.

It had hoped to replicate that success by winning its first seat in the British parliament at the election in Peterborough, which supported Brexit by 61% to 39% in the 2016 referendum.

Labour candidate Lisa Forbes won with 10,484 votes, while the Brexit Party, who were the bookmakers’ favourite, came second on 9,801 votes. May’s governing Conservatives came third with 7,243 votes.

“Despite differing opinions across our city, the fact that the Brexit Party have been rejected here in Peterborough shows that the politics of division will not win,” Forbes said in her victory speech.

Almost three years since Britain voted 52% to 48% to leave the European Union, lawmakers remain at loggerheads over how, when or even whether to leave the EU. May is quitting after failing to get her Brexit deal approved and the prospect of a “no-deal” exit has become central to the battle to replace her.

Forbes, who backed remaining in the EU in 2016 but said she respects the result of the referendum, said May’s successor should restart government talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn that failed to find a way through the deadlock on Brexit.

“They should reach out straight away to the other parties,” she told Sky News. “I’ll support a deal that won’t make our constituents poorer, that protects their jobs, protects living standards.”

Breakthrough

Labour, which along with the Conservatives saw its support slump at the European elections as voters expressed their frustration over the Brexit deadlock, is divided over whether to unequivocally support holding a second referendum.

Corbyn has so far only said the option of another Brexit vote should be kept on the table, along with a national election. The prospect poses a dilemma as many of the party’s supporters backed Brexit.

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Asked whether she would support holding another referendum, Forbes said. “If there is an impasse in parliament that we just can’t get through, it may be that we end up there in the future … I’d like to see a deal.”

The Peterborough election was triggered when Labour’s Fiona Onasanya became the first member of parliament to be ousted in a recall petition, after she was jailed for lying about a speeding offence. She had won the seat from the Conservatives in 2017’s general election with a majority of just 607 votes.

Despite failing to win the seat, the Brexit Party’s lead over the Conservatives will increase the pressure on those running to replace May to pursue a cleaner break with the bloc.

Several of the candidates have warned of the threat from the Brexit Party if an election were held before Britain leaves the EU. Frontrunner Boris Johnson has said the Conservatives face “political extinction” at the next national election if Brexit does not happen by the current deadline of October 31.

Farage played a leading role in the campaign to leave the EU and his Brexit Party supports quitting the bloc without a deal.

“Two parties have been ruling this country for decades, that is not happening anymore,” the Brexit Party’s Peterborough candidate Mike Greene told Sky News after the result.

“The party has only been going 7 weeks,” he added. “Of course we have made a breakthrough … in an election, you will see more of the same and you will see us getting more seats all over the country.”

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