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After Brexit failure, UK’s May will quit as Conservative leader

Updated May 24, 2019 - 11:01 am

LONDON — Theresa May announced Friday that she will step down as U.K. Conservative Party leader on June 7, admitting defeat in her attempt to take Britain out of the European Union and sparking a contest to become the country’s next prime minister.

She will stay as caretaker prime minister until the new leader is chosen, a process likely to take several weeks. The new Conservative leader would then become prime minister without the need for a general election.

Her voice breaking, May said in a televised statement outside 10 Downing St. that she would soon be leaving a job that it has been “the honor of my life to hold.”

May became prime minister the month after Britons voted in June 2016 to leave the European Union, and her premiership has been consumed by the attempt to deliver on that verdict.

Now she has bowed to relentless pressure from her party to quit over her failure to take Britain out of the EU on the scheduled date of March 29. Britain is currently due to leave the EU on Oct. 31, but Parliament has yet to approve divorce terms.

“I feel as certain today as I did three years ago that in a democracy, if you give people a choice you have a duty to implement what they decide,” May said.

“I have done my best to do that. … But it is now clear to me that it is in the best interests of the country for a new prime minister to lead that effort.”

Leadership contest to begin

Her departure will trigger a party leadership contest in which any Conservative lawmaker can run. The early front-runner is Boris Johnson, a former foreign secretary and strong champion of Brexit.

Conservative lawmakers increasingly see May as an obstacle to Britain’s EU exit, although her replacement will face the same issue: a Parliament deeply divided over whether to leave the EU, and how close a relationship to seek with the bloc after it does.

Pressure on May reached critical point this week as House of Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom quit and several Cabinet colleagues expressed doubts about her Brexit bill.

With her authority draining away by the hour, May on Thursday delayed plans to publish the EU withdrawal bill — her fourth attempt to secure Parliament’s backing for her Brexit blueprint.

Leadsom, another likely contender to replace May, joined colleagues in paying tribute to the departing leader. She tweeted that May’s “dignified speech” had been “an illustration of her total commitment to country and duty. She did her utmost, and I wish her all the very best.”

Johnson, whose relentless criticism helped push May out of the door, tweeted: “Thank you for your stoical service to our country and the Conservative Party. It is now time to follow her urgings: to come together and deliver Brexit.”

Merkel praises May

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has noted “with respect” the decision of British Prime Minister Theresa May to step down, and will continue to work closely with her successor for an orderly Brexit.

Merkel’s spokeswoman, Martina Fietz, told reporters Friday that the chancellor and May always “worked together in a good and trusting” relationship and would continue to do so while May remains in office.

Looking ahead, Fietz says, “we, and the EU as a whole, are interested in a good solution being found in Britain” to the Brexit issue, and that means “an orderly exit.”

The German government would not speculate on May’s possible successor.

Trump ‘feeling badly’

U.S. President Donald Trump says he is “feeling badly” for British Prime Minister Theresa May who announced Friday that she would resign.

May held an emotional news conference in London hours earlier and said she would step aside June 7 after being unable to secure a Brexit deal.

The president, leaving the White House for Japan, told reporters that “I like her very much.”

Trump will meet with May in the U.K. early next month. He is heading to Europe for a state dinner in England as well as D-Day anniversary ceremonies.

The president caused a stir last summer when, in advance of a trip to London, he gave an interview to the tabloid The Sun criticizing May’s Brexit divorce plan from the European Union.

Spain says news is bad

Spain’s caretaker government says that May’s announcement she is stepping down as leader of Britain’s Conservative Party is “bad news” because it will make a “hard Brexit,” where the country leaves the EU without a deal on future relations, more likely.

Government Spokeswoman Isabel Celaá says that May’s resignation, which would usher in a new Conservative prime minister, is not good for those hoping for Britain’s orderly departure from the European Union.

May is “throwing in the towel” and the departure agreement negotiated between her government and the EU has “no chance to go ahead,” said Celaá, who is also Spain’s caretaker education minister.

“A hard Brexit is a reality that under the current circumstances is almost impossible to avoid,” Celáa said.

The spokeswoman also says that, ahead of the European parliamentary election in which Spain will take part on Sunday, Britain’s politics are “a clear example of what can happen if we allow ourselves to be dragged by extremisms.”

Macron praises May

French President Emmanuel Macron has praised May’s “courageous work” on Brexit after the British prime minister announced her resignation.

“It’s too soon to speculate on the consequences of this decision”, Macron said, according to a statement from the French presidency. “France is ready to work with the new British prime minister on all European and bilateral issues.”

Macron sent May a personal message of support and appreciation, the statement said.

As European parliament elections are being held in the bloc until Sunday, Macron said “this must also remind us, at a time of important choice, that rejection votes with no alternative project lead to an impasse.”

Speech lauded

May’s departure speech is drawing praise from fellow Conservative Party members, including some who had criticized her Brexit stance.

Andrea Leadsom, who resigned as House of Commons Leader on Wednesday to protest May’s Brexit plan, tweeted that May’s speech was “an illustration of her total commitment to country and duty.”

Leadsom, a possible leadership contender, said May “did her utmost” and praised the dignity of the prime minister’s speech.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove tweeted his thanks to the prime minister. He called it, “A moving speech from a Prime Minister who deserves our respect and gratitude.”

Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, a frequent critic of May, says she is worried May’s decision will bring “an even more hardline” Brexit-backer to power.

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