European Union

Undone by Brexit, May Steps Down as Conservative Leader

The prime minister's departure as leader of her party sets up a race to succeed her

British Prime Minister Theresa May formally stepped down as Conservative Party leader on Friday, defeated by the Brexit conundrum.

May's three years at the helm ended not with a bang but a whimper: The party simply confirmed there had been a private exchange of letters between May and the committee that oversees party rules, confirming the departure announced by May two weeks ago.

May will remain as acting leader and prime minister for a few weeks while the party picks a successor, who will become Britain's next prime minister.

Almost a dozen Conservative lawmakers are already jostling to replace May in a contest that formally opens Monday, vowing to succeed where 62-year-old May failed and renegotiate Britain's deal to pull out of the European Union. There's just one problem: The EU says that's not going to happen.

"There will be no renegotiation," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said — not for the first time — last week.

On Friday, Juncker lamented: "Everyone understands English, but nobody understands England."

Britain voted 52% to 48% in 2016 to leave the EU, and the 27 other nations finally agreed late last year to a detailed withdrawal plan with May's government.

But her plan has been rejected three times by Parliament, doomed by hardline lawmakers who wanted more of a clean break and those who wanted a softer Brexit that kept close economic ties to the bloc.

The departure day has been postponed from March 29 to Oct. 31.

In the wake of the plan's defeat, many of May's Conservative colleagues decided she had to go.

The mess has transformed the U.K.'s political map. May's Conservatives and the main opposition Labour Party are both fractured over how to leave the EU.

Frustrated and angry voters are turning away from the big parties to the upstart Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage and — on the other side of the European divide — the Liberal Democrats and Greens, who want Britain to remain in the EU.

Farage's Brexit Party came close to winning its first seat in Parliament on Friday, narrowly losing to Labour in a special election in the eastern England city of Peterborough. Labour's share of the vote fell sharply from the last election in 2017, and the Conservatives came third.

Despite the loss, Farage said the result showed that British politics had "fundamentally changed," with the stranglehold of the long-dominant Conservative and Labour parties now broken.

It's too soon to say whether he is right, but the bigger parties are worried.

May became Britain's second female prime minister in July 2016, after her predecessor David Cameron stepped down in the wake of the EU referendum. Now the party will hold a similar contest to replace her.

Conservative lawmakers will hold a ballot June 13, with any candidates who don't get at least 5% of votes dropping out. Further rounds will be held on June 18, 19 and 20 if needed, with the least popular candidate dropping out each time.

The final two candidates will be put to a postal ballot of about 160,000 Conservative members, with the winner announced the week of July 22.

The race, which already has 11 candidates, is utterly dominated by Brexit.

The front-runner, Boris Johnson, has warned that the Conservatives face "extinction" if Britain doesn't leave the EU on Oct. 31.

Johnson is one of several contenders — including Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Health Secretary Matt Hancock — promising to go back to Brussels and make changes to the Brexit deal.

"I believe that European leaders want to find a way through this," Gove wrote in the Daily Mail.

But the chances that the other EU countries would consider reopening the legally binding agreement appear slim at best. Even as the Brexit saga has dragged on and the pressure of a potentially disastrous "no deal" Brexit mounted, no European leader has publicly shown an appetite for renegotiating any part of the 585-page text.

Hard-core Brexiteers in the British leadership contest say they would rather take Britain out of the bloc with no deal than countenance a further delay.

Most economists and businesses say a no-deal Brexit would cause economic turmoil, imposing obstacles overnight between the U.K. and the EU, its biggest trading partner.

Lorne Cook contributed to this story.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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