Ever since the first failure of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement bill in March, the prime minister’s resignation has looked more inevitable than Brexit itself. Fresh off the last failure of the WAB — in which the prime minister couldn’t even secure a vote — May will leave office before the UK leaves the EU. May publicly gave her two-week notice this morning, with a departure date just after Donald Trump’s state visit in June:
BREAKING: Theresa May announces her resignation as British prime minister in an emotional statement, stating she will be stepping down on June 7th after failing to deliver Brexit. @KellyCobiella has the latest. pic.twitter.com/1J3WCLnU7h
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) May 24, 2019
Speaking in front of the official residence at 10 Downing Street, May said she had “done my best” but was unable to sway members of Parliament to back her Brexit vision. She told Britons that compromise was not a dirty word.
“I believe it was right to persevere even when the odds against success seemed high,” she said. “It is and will always remain a matter of deep regret for me that I have not been able to deliver Brexit.”
Near the end of her brief remarks, May noted that she was Britain’s second female prime minister and promised there would be more women in the highest office. Then her voice became shaky and tears almost came as she said she was departing with “no ill will, but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.”
The Tories announced that they would choose a new prime minister by July 20th, leaving a six-week gap for leadership elections. The favorite at the moment is Boris Johnson, former London mayor and Brexit hardliner, who resigned after May rolled out the WAB. Dominic Raab, another hardliner who resigned as Brexit secretary over May’s handling of the issue, would be the next most likely candidate, according to The Guardian. The election of Johnson or another hardliner as PM is as inevitable as May’s resignation, since that has become the clear direction of Conservatives over the past several months.
What happens next? Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wants an election, but the Tories almost certainly don’t. And they don’t necessarily have to call one, either; Labour won’t have the votes for a no-confidence motion if Tories hold on to the DUP with the next PM election. A victory by Johnson or another hardliner will all but guarantee that Tories can limp along to whatever Brexit results from the leadership change.
That makes a hard Brexit (or no-deal Brexit) almost a certainty. Johnson wants another round of tougher negotiations with the EU, but the EU insists that they went as far as possible with the WAB. As they have said all year, they insist that a leadership change in the UK won’t reopen negotiations:
Most of the leading contenders to succeed May want a tougher divorce deal, although the EU has said it will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement it sealed with Britain in November.
Spain said it now seemed almost impossible to avoid a so-called hard Brexit, or clean break from the EU, and the bloc signaled there would be no change on the agreement despite European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker learning of May’s resignation “without personal joy”.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney underlined the bloc’s stance that there would be no better Brexit deal.
“This idea that a new prime minister will be a tougher negotiator and will put it up to the EU and get a much better deal for Britain? That’s not how the EU works,” Coveney told Ireland’s Newstalk radio station.
To some Tories, a hard Brexit is now more desirable than a negotiated exit, at least as a bargaining position. They’re banking on the EU being more desperate for a deal than the UK. That’s very unlikely, however, as the other 27 nations can absorb the trade disruption among themselves than the UK will be able to do by itself. It’s a dead end in another way, too; the UK will have to cut some sort of trade deal with the EU, since it is their largest trading partner. That’s essentially what the WAB was, along with an agreement to pay for commitments made by the UK while still part of the EU.
The next PM might find conditions for those talks even less favorable after a clean break than they are at the moment, especially if the hard Brexit creates a hard border in Ireland all over again. The EU will have a much easier time living without UK trade than the UK will have living without EU trade, especially in the short run. This is not a game of chicken that the Brits can win.
Still, Tories seem determined to test all these theories, so buckle up and expect a bumpy ride to the Halloween 2019 deadline — and an even bumpier ride after that.