Britain's embattled leader Theresa May resigns premiership amid Brexit deadlock

Kim Hjelmgaard

LONDON – Britain's embattled leader Theresa May resigned her premiership Friday, although she will stay on as caretaker prime minister for now, amid a barrage of criticism and mounting pressure over her failed efforts to steer the nation out of the European Union in a manner acceptable to increasingly rebellious lawmakers. 

May, 62, lasted three years in office. 

Her last official day as prime minister will be June 7, after which her Conservative Party will start a process to replace her that could take several weeks or more. She will play a caretaker role until the new leader is chosen. Britain elects a party, not a candidate, meaning that there will be no immediate change to the party that is in power. 

It's been "the honor of my life" to be the "second female prime minister, but certainly not the last," May said in a statement, delivered from 10 Downing Street, her official office and residence in central London. Her voice cracked with emotion as she spoke. 

"It is, and will always remain, a matter of deep regret to me that I have not been able to deliver Brexit," May said, struggling to complete her brief address amid tears. 

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May took over from David Cameron, also of the Conservative Party. Cameron resigned after Britain's 2016 national referendum on Brexit. Cameron gambled that the country would choose to stay in the 28-nation bloc, but it didn't.   

May previously announced she would relinquish her position once lawmakers approved her EU withdrawal agreement. The deal had been rejected three times already and parliamentarians were due to vote on it a fourth time in early June. 

But despite a last-ditch bid to secure support for her plan – including a promise to give Parliament a vote on whether to hold a new vote on EU membership, something May repeatedly ruled out – it became clear that that, too, was not sufficient to convince lawmakers across the political spectrum that her deal served Britain's interests. In fact, it appeared to intensify a backlash against her.    

Pro-Brexit Conservatives accused May of capitulating to pro-EU demands over the border status of Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with EU-member Ireland. EU membership has enabled frictionless trade and peace along this border for decades. Opposition Labour Party lawmakers dismissed May's offer as too little too late, and lacking in the type of protections for workers' rights, public health and other notable issues that the EU facilitated. 

"The rhetoric may have changed but the deal has not," said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. "She did not seek a compromise until after she had missed her own deadline to leave, and by the time she finally did she had lost the authority to deliver."

Britain is due to leave the EU on October 31, with or without a formal exit deal, and May's departure injects new uncertainty into what it means for the fate of Brexit.

Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent, England, said May's exit increases the likelihood that Britain's government will drift further to the right and that the country could leave the EU without an exit deal. Most experts say that will harm Britain's economy and lead to significant disruptions from travel to security.  

Goodwin said that May is the fourth British Conservative leader in history to "at least partly be brought down by Europe." Margaret Thatcher (1975-1990), John Major (1990-1997 and Cameron (2005-2016) were all hampered by a difficult EU relationship.  

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Among the main contenders to replace May include U.S.-born former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who officially confirmed last week that he would seek the job if a vacancy arose. Bookmakers and polls show that Johnson, 54, is the frontrunner. 

He is an eccentric character known for his tussled blonde hair and frequent classical allusions. Johnson has long struggled to hide his prime ministerial ambitions, gleefully telling USA TODAY in a 2014 interview his chance of becoming British prime minister was about as good as finding Elvis on Mars or being reincarnated as an olive.  

British Prime Minister Theresa May reacts as she turns away after making a speech in the street outside 10 Downing Street in London, England, Friday, May 24, 2019. Theresa May says she'll quit as UK Conservative leader on June 7, sparking contest for Britain's next prime minister.

Johnson, an ardent backer of Brexit, has previously spoken of his admiration for President Donald Trump, although when he was London's mayor the flamboyant and gaffe-prone politician also said that Trump was "clearly out of his mind."

Other possible replacements for May, who will be largely unknown to Americans, include: Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab; environment secretary Michael Gove; foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt; and Sajid Javid, Britain's interior minister.

Still, foreign affairs experts say there is unlikely to be any major impact on Britain's close relationship with the United States as a result of May's departure. It's been forged through hundreds of years of economic and cultural ties, two world wars, the Cold War, several Middle East conflicts and cooperation fighting terrorism.

"Unless there is a general election and Corbyn comes to power," said Richard Caplan, a professor of international relations at Oxford University, referring to Corbyn's committed left-wing political stance. Corbyn is an outspoken Trump critic. 

May's scheduled ouster comes ahead of Trump's planned state visit to Britain next week and after her party likely received a drubbing in European Parliament elections.

The decision to wait until June 7 to begin the hunt for a new prime minister seems partly designed to let Trump's trip take place without the backdrop of utter political chaos. He arrives June 3rd for a state visit that includes meeting with the royal family. 

"I feel badly for Theresa, I like her very much," said Trump, speaking to reporters as he departed the White House for a weekend trip to Japan.

But even when May goes, the new prime minister will still face the same seemingly intractable struggle to get Britain's Parliament to approve a Brexit deal that is acceptable to a majority of lawmakers, former Conservative Party cabinet member Ken Clarke told BBC radio on Friday. "The right wing of my party ... seem to imagine that the party will now unite behind the one of them that most resembles Nigel Farage," he said, referring to the Brexit champion, a divisive figure who is close to Trump. Farage is running for re-election in the European Parliament elections with his new Brexit Party.  

"I don’t think it’s going to be like that," said Clarke. 

Praise for May's political courage and tenacity poured in from politicians at home and abroad on Friday. Many of their remarks echoed the words of Andrea Leadsom, a possible leadership contender who resigned as the leader of the House of Commons on Wednesday to protest May’s Brexit plan. Leadsom tweeted the prime minister "did her utmost" and showed her "total commitment to country and duty."

However, May's legacy will be dominated by the same thing that ushered her into power: dragging Britain out of the EU when most British parliamentarians are opposed to it, economists say it's a bad idea and the country is split over the issue. May pledged to fight the "burning injustices" that plague modern Britain by introducing wide-ranging reforms to social welfare programs. She was kept busy by Brexit instead.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Britain's embattled leader Theresa May resigns premiership amid Brexit deadlock