London: Theresa May has given an emotional farewell to “the job that it has been the honour of my life to hold”, pledging to step aside as Conservative leader on 7 June and kicking off a frantic scramble to become Britain’s next prime minister.
Calling time on a turbulent three-year premiership punctuated by revolts and resignations, May said she would leave “with no ill will, but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love”.
The prime minister will remain in place until a new leader has been chosen by her party: a process senior Conservatives hope will be completed by late July.
Boris Johnson is the frontrunner to succeed May, but he will be one among a crowded field of contenders, with the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, declaring his candidacy on Friday. A host of others are expected to follow.
Johnson was quick out of the blocks after May’s resignation, insisting the UK must leave the EU on 31 October, “deal or no deal”, in an attempt to shore up his appeal to the right of the party.
With Nigel Farage’s Brexit party expected to perform strongly when the results of the European elections are revealed on Sunday night, prime ministerial candidates will come under intense pressure to take a tough stance on Brexit.
In her statement outside 10 Downing Street, May said: “It will always remain a matter of deep regret to me that I have not been able to deliver Brexit”. She insisted, however, that she had pursued the right strategy until the end.
In her speech, which aides said she had largely written herself, the prime minister listed a number of what she said were her government’s achievements, including the race disparity audit and the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster.
But the Fire Brigades Union reacted angrily to her mention of the fatal fire, with the general secretary, Matt Wrack, saying: “Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility.”
Former prime minister David Cameron offered his sympathy to May, saying, “I know how painful it is to accept that your time is up and a new leader is required.
“It is extremely difficult and painful to step outside of Downing Street and say those things. This will be a very difficult day.”
Despite the bullishness of the Brexiters about the difference a new leader could make, EU27 leaders responded to May’s departure by underlining their determination to stick to the withdrawal agreement they signed off late last year.
Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, offered his thanks to May, but added: “The agreement reached between the EU and the United Kingdom for an ordered Brexit remains on the table.”
A spokeswoman for Jean-Claude Juncker said the European commission president had followed May’s tearful statement “without personal joy”, and described her as a “very courageous woman”.
She added that Juncker would treat any new prime minister with the respect shown to May, but that the commission’s position – that negotiations were closed – would not change.
David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, who is backing his successor, Dominic Raab, said: “The chance is now available for a new leader to reset, and if they take no deal seriously, if they go back and promote the compromises that parliament has agreed, there’s a decent chance of leaving by the October deadline, moving on to a more sensible basis of negotiations thereafter for the future deal, and getting Britain back worrying about the things that matter: housing, education, health services and the like.”
Davis said he was sad for May. “I thought she was overwhelmed by a really impossible situation, but in other respects she was a very good prime minister.”