The World

The Last Days of May

The prime minister’s departure won’t solve the Brexit quagmire.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives to announce her resignation outside 10 Downing Street in London on Friday.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May arrives to announce her resignation outside 10 Downing Street in London on Friday.
Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

Finally, at least one of the countless uncertainties of contemporary British politics has been clarified: On Friday morning, Theresa May announced her resignation as leader of Britain’s Conservative Party, and thus as prime minister. We still don’t know exactly when she will leave office. May said she will stand down as leader on June 7—after two significant events, the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Landings on June 6 and President Donald Trump’s state visit to Britain from June 3–5—but she will remain as a caretaker prime minister until her party selects a new leader. The race to replace her will officially begin around June 10, but it isn’t yet clear when it will end. Conservative MPs will vote first, whittling the pool of candidates down to two finalists from which grass-roots members of the party will select a winner.

May’s announcement lasted less than 10 minutes, during which she repeatedly mentioned her thwarted efforts to convince Parliament to support her Brexit deal: “I tried three times. I believe it was right to persevere even when the odds against success seemed high. 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.” Finding consensus will be no easier for her successor, given British politicians’ unwillingness to compromise. May noted that Nicholas Winton, a former resident of her Maidenhead constituency who organized the Czech Kindertransport to rescue Jewish children during World War II, once told her, “Never forget that compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.” So, in many ways, does the Conservative Party’s future.

May’s departure won’t solve the fundamental issues that have made the Brexit process such a quagmire. Even though the Tory leadership candidates will be pushed to lay out detailed Brexit plans, the European Union would still have to accept whatever proposal Parliament eventually supports. The harshest Brexit option—leaving the EU without a deal—has some support, but a majority of legislators are strongly opposed.

May, whose composure deserted her in the final seconds of her speech, took time to note that during her time as prime minister she tried to “give a voice to the voiceless” and to “fight the burning injustices that still scar our society.” She said the Conservative Party “can renew itself in the years ahead” and included solving Britain’s housing crisis and tackling environmental issues as things a “decent, moderate, and patriotic Conservative government” can do in the years ahead, “even as we tackle the biggest peacetime challenge any government has faced.”

Boris Johnson, the former foreign minister and mayor of London who was one of the leaders of the Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum, is the front-runner to succeed May, but he is the ultimate Marmite politician—brilliant but somewhat buffoonish and personally ambitious to a degree that even other politicians find unseemly. The other candidates with Brexiteer bona fides—former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, the recently resigned Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom, and former Pensions Secretary Esther McVey—lack Johnson’s recognition factor and given the parliamentary struggle that led to May’s ouster, it seems unlikely that the party would choose another former Remainer such as Home Secretary Sajid Javid or current Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd.

Although she is a rank outsider, the recently appointed Defense Secretary Penny Mourdant would be an interesting candidate. As a longtime Brexiteer who has served in multiple Cabinet positions, she has the credentials. And as the daughter of a paratrooper, a Navy reservist, and the first person in her family to go to university, she provides a useful counter to the “posh boy” image that is now widely seen as toxic for Conservative politicians. Although it seems unlikely that May was thinking of Mourdant, she did end her resignation speech by noting that she had been Britain’s “second female prime minister but certainly not the last.” Mourdant once worked as a magician’s assistant. If ever Britain needed someone to pull a rabbit out of a hat—or Brexit out of the Houses of Parliament—now is the hour.