(CN) — Under strain and choking back tears, British Prime Minister Theresa May stood in front of No. 10 Downing Street on Friday morning and announced her resignation after failing to deliver Brexit.
She is the latest in a string of Conservative British prime ministers, dating back to Margaret Thatcher, forced out of office over policy disputes within the Tory ranks involving the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe.
May said she would resign on June 7 and stay in office until her successor is found. The person considered most likely to replace her is Boris Johnson, the charismatic but divisive former mayor of London who has championed Brexit as a great opportunity for the country.
May opposed Brexit when the 2016 referendum took place, but was chosen prime minister by the Tories in the hope she’d be able to bring the opposing camps together. But the challenge proved too great, and a number of miscalculations, including a decision to call snap elections in 2017, doomed her. Instead of winning seats, the Conservatives lost their majority to a resurgent Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist with ambivalent views on the EU.
In announcing her resignation, May could not hold her emotions in check and her voice cracked at the end of her speech: She grimaced, held back tears, abruptly turned her back and walked back into No. 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence.
Up to that point, she had delivered a speech spelling out the challenge of getting Parliament to agree on Brexit and highlighting achievements her government had made. But Brexit, she acknowledged, was her downfall.
“It is and will always remain a matter of deep regret for me that I have not been able to deliver Brexit,” she said.
She said her successor will need “to find consensus in Parliament, where I did not” and that that would come about only “if those on both sides of the debate are willing to compromise.”
The United Kingdom is slated to leave the European Union on Oct. 31 and May’s resignation makes it even less clear what will happen now. But her departure is a victory for right-wing Tories who are pushing for a so-called “hard Brexit,” which could include abandoning the EU without spelling out the terms of withdrawal.
For the past two years, May has been working with EU negotiators on laying down agreeable terms on a wide range of issues, including trade, political relations, the status of citizenship for Britons and EU citizens, and military and police relations.
But the final deal May and the EU came up with was viewed by a core group of Tory members as a betrayal of the Brexit referendum, because they said it would keep the U.K. bound to EU rules and laws.
The nub of the problem lay a sea away: on the island of Ireland.
Under May’s deal, Northern Ireland would essentially remain within the EU, in the event that a long-range trade agreement between the U.K. and the EU could not be reached. This arrangement was agreed upon by the two sides to ensure that a border with customs checks is not re-established between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Re-establishing such a border there could lead to the breakout of sectarian violence and violate the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the decades-long Troubles that left more than 3,700 people dead in shootings, bombings and other acts of violence.
The problem for hard-line Brexiters is that forcing Northern Ireland to remain bound to EU rules and laws might then leave the rest of the United Kingdom also bound by them.
Complicating matters for May was that her minority government relied on the votes of 10 members of a hard-line conservative Northern Irish Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party, to get her deal through Parliament, and they too opposed the border arrangement, arguing that Northern Ireland would become unacceptably severed from the rest of the U.K.
The problem for those Tories who do not want to align Britain with the EU, on this issue and others, is that doing so risks crashing out of the EU without a deal — and that, according to many economists, would be catastrophic for the U.K. economy.
Another reality check for May’s replacement is that the EU has consistently said the deal it struck with May is the best offer. The EU is opposed to the U.K.’s exit, but said May’s deal was acceptable.
The next British prime minister, then, faces the same problems May has struggled with: A deeply divided Parliament and public, a sense of duty to uphold the result of the 2016 referendum, little room to maneuver in negotiations with the EU, and the perils of cracking the British economy and even its political union.
The threat of Brexit has given new momentum to independence drives in Scotland and Northern Ireland. A majority of voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland were against Brexit.
“Many commentators already are blaming May for failing to deliver Brexit,” said Simon Hix, a political scientist at the London School of Economics and Political Science, on Twitter. “But I suspect the next prime minister will soon find themselves in exactly the same position. Brexit is a poison chalice, with no majority in the country or the [House of] Commons for any particular outcome.”
Still, May’s resignation gives new hope to those who favor Britain’s withdrawal from the EU without a deal, if that becomes the only option.
One of those is Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory member and spokesman for the European Research Group, a pro-Brexit group that helped orchestrate May’s exit from Downing Street. He is supporting Johnson to become the next prime minister.
In a Friday interview on Sky News, Rees-Mogg touted the benefits of trading outside of the EU’s single market. Supporters of a no-deal Brexit say Britain can use World Trade Organization rules on tariffs. Many economists dismiss this solution as unworkable and potentially catastrophic for Britain’s economy.
“It’s a great opportunity for our economy,” Rees-Mogg said. “We can cut tariffs, we can have cheaper food, clothing and footwear. We will be better off once we are free from the dead hand of the European Union.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)