British Prime Minister Theresa May told members of Parliament on Wednesday that she will resign as prime minister if her Brexit deal passes — an apparent attempt to push her party to finally endorse the plan.
The announcement came amid mounting pressure on the prime minister. May has tried and failed twice to get her plan for the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union through Parliament. On Monday, Parliament dealt her a significant blow by voting to take control of the Brexit process, and three of May’s ministers resigned in protest to support the measure.
May said in a speech before the 1922 Committee, the group that represents Conservative members of Parliament (MPs) who are not part of her government, that she would step down after Parliament approves her Brexit deal, and before the next phase of the Brexit negotiations. That “next phase” is when the EU and the UK will work out their future trade relationship.
Many of the hardline Brexiteers in her party, or those who want a decisive break from the EU, have long loathed May and tried to orchestrate her ouster in December. It appears these are the members who are ultimately pushing her to step aside, which would give them a chance to elevate another hardline Brexiteer as prime minister.
It likely will not be that simple. For one, May did not give a definite timeline for when she would step aside — it’s not clear if she meant right after her deal passes, which would be sometime before April 12, or another date in the future.
Her promise was also pretty vague; she simply said she was ready to leave the job “earlier than intended” to deliver Brexit.
“I have heard very clearly the mood of the parliamentary party,” May said. “I know there is a desire for a new approach — and new leadership — in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations — and I won’t stand in the way of that.”
But it’s still not clear if her Brexit deal will pass on a third vote. Winning over the hardline Brexiteers is one of her major hurdles, but it’s not the only one. May still needs the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), her conservative allies in Northern Ireland.
And it’s possible she could face defections from moderate or pro-Remain MPs in both the Conservative and Labour parties, who realize that passing May’s deal opens up the possibility of a much more anti-EU prime minister in the future. (Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow also repeated Wednesday he would not allow a third Brexit deal vote without a substantially changed deal — so there’s that hurdle to get around now, too.)
Parliament is also hosting a series of votes — “indicative votes” — this Wednesday, to try to figure out a new Brexit strategy. May’s announcement complicates this attempt to forge a new Brexit plan.
May will resign, or so she says. What happens next?
When, and if May eventually resigns, it will trigger a leadership contest among the Conservatives, with figures from both the hard-right and more moderate wings vying to become the new party leader. The process could take weeks. Conservatives must then form a government (right now, 10 members of the Democratic Unionist Party are propping up May’s government), and that leader would step into the role of prime minister.
May’s party is deeply split, and includes the pro-Brexit camp, a handful of strong Remainers, and moderates, who fall somewhere in between. May was the consensus candidate, with all sides putting up with her because they feared the alternative would be worse. But any leadership contest will expose these deep divisions.
But a few potential candidates who could take May’s place are emerging. Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and current pro-Brexit MP, may finally get his shot. Michael Gove, the current secretary of the environment, has also been floated as a potential replacement. David Lidington, May’s de facto deputy, is seen as a favorite of the current ministers in May’s cabinet; there have already been reports of May’s ministers leading a “coup” behind the scenes to put him in power.
Whoever wins the leadership contest will then have to steer the UK through the next phase of Brexit: negotiating the future EU-UK relationship. If the next prime minister hails from the Brexiteer camp, they will likely seek to pull away as much as possible from the EU. A new leader who favors a softer Brexit would likely seek closer ties.
May’s tenure as prime minister could be coming to a close. But the future of UK politics — and the EU-UK relationship — remains at stake.