Brexit-bat­tered May re­signs; bat­tle to re­place her be­gins

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Christina Boyle and Laura King

LON­DON — When Theresa May be­came Bri­tain’s prime min­is­ter in July 2016, only the sec­ond woman to hold the post, the vicar’s daugh­ter-turned-politi­cian in­au­gu­rated her ten­ure with the brisk dec­la­ra­tion: “Brexit means Brexit.”

Few po­lit­i­cal catch­phrases have ul­ti­mately rung so hol­low. What­ever Brexit turns out to mean, Bri­tish vot­ers’ nar­row de­ci­sion a month ear­lier to bolt from the Euro­pean Union was a code May never man­aged to crack.

On Fri­day — Brexit-bat­tered, ridiculed and re­viled, aban­doned by her own Con­ser­va­tive Party — the 62-year-old prime min­is­ter bowed to the in­evitable and bowed out. Her an­nounce­ment that she would step down June 7 as party leader in­au­gu­rated a nearin­stan­ta­neous scrum to re­place her, with a new prime min­is­ter likely to be picked some­time in July.

May will stay on in a care­taker ca­pac­ity un­til then.

For a farewell so long fore­told, the end was swift. In a brief but emo­tional ap­pear­ance out­side the prime min­is­ter’s of­fi­cial res­i­dence that was car­ried on na­tion­wide tele­vi­sion, May said she would be leav­ing a job that had been “the honor of my

life to hold.”

In a voice that trem­bled and fi­nally broke, the prime min­is­ter de­clared that she would leave of­fice “with no ill will, but with enor­mous and en­dur­ing grat­i­tude to have had the op­por­tu­nity to serve the coun­try I love.”

The de­par­ture drama came just one day after the Bri­tish voted in Euro­pean par­lia­men­tary elec­tions — a nor­mally lit­tle-watched po­lit­i­cal ex­er­cise that took on heav­ily freighted sig­nif­i­cance against the Brexit back­drop.

Re­sults were not due un­til Sun­day, when vot­ing is com­pleted across the 28-na­tion bloc, but May’s Con­ser­va­tives faced a likely trounc­ing at the hands of the new Brexit Party, whose sole aim is to fi­nal­ize Bri­tain’s di­vorce from the EU.

When she took the helm less than a month after the shock ref­er­en­dum re­sult of June 2016, May seemed like an in­spired choice: a no-non­sense, com­pe­tent pair of hands to steer the deal to com­ple­tion.

But over time, the prime min­is­ter’s ef­forts to per­suade law­mak­ers to agree to terms of a di­vorce from the EU boiled down to a piti­less na­tional meme: May once again on the podium in the House of Com­mons, stoic in a state­ment neck­lace, her res­o­lute or­a­tory all but drowned out by a rau­cous cho­rus of jeers.

Dur­ing her tu­mul­tuous ten­ure, May was tasked — in the eyes of sym­pa­thiz­ers and even some crit­ics — with squar­ing an im­pos­si­ble cir­cle. She searched in vain for ways to ex­tract Bri­tain from the EU’s rules and reg­u­la­tions while some­how en­abling her coun­try to en­joy key priv­i­leges of mem­ber­ship in the 28-na­tion bloc.

Among other thorny is­sues, the prime min­is­ter tried des­per­ately to stave off any risk of a “hard” bor­der be­tween Ire­land, an EU mem­ber, and North­ern Ire­land, part of the United King­dom. A for­ti­fied fron­tier would threaten the hard-won peace ac­cord of two decades ago.

Be­set by dis­cord and di­vi­sion, Bri­tain blew past the orig­i­nal March 29 dead­line for its EU exit, which is now set for the end of Oc­to­ber.

May’s de­par­ture could heighten prospects for a nodeal Brexit, a crash­ing out of the EU with no new trade ac­cord in place. The front-run­ner to re­place her, for­mer For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris John­son, sig­naled readi­ness to brush aside pre­dic­tions that a no-deal de­par­ture could cause chaos: enor­mous truck-traf­fic jams at the fron­tier, po­ten­tial short­ages of ba­sic goods and medicine.

“We will leave the EU on Oct. 31, deal or no deal,” John­son told an eco­nomic con­fer­ence in Switzer­land. “The way to get a good deal is to pre­pare for a no deal. To get things done, you need to be pre­pared to walk away.”

May, Ox­ford-ed­u­cated but from a rel­a­tively hum­ble so­cial back­ground, spent much of her ca­reer navigating a Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal scene that was in large mea­sure clubby and posh, in­su­lar and male-dominated.

Rising from lo­cal coun­cilor to am­bi­tious par­lia­men­tar­ian, by 2010 she had at­tained the Cabi­net rank of home sec­re­tary, re­spon­si­ble for af­fairs of im­mi­gra­tion and cit­i­zen­ship.

Bri­tain’s chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics would even­tu­ally be­come a driv­ing force be­hind the Brexit ref­er­en­dum, which May’s pre­de­ces­sor as prime min­is­ter, David Cameron, ini­ti­ated al­most ca­su­ally, in what would prove a dis­as­trous at­tempt to shore up his own po­lit­i­cal sup­port.

Dur­ing the di­vi­sive runup to the Brexit vote, May was in the “Re­main” camp — those who wanted to stay in the EU — but her sup­port was tepid enough that it was not seen as dis­qual­i­fy­ing when her Con­ser­va­tive Party vowed to bring the voter-man­dated split with Europe to fruition.

She emerged as a com­pro­mise can­di­date to be­come prime min­is­ter after last-minute stum­bles by other, more staunch pro­po­nents of Brexit — in­clud­ing John­son, the flam­boy­antly the­atri­cal for­mer Lon­don mayor who now hopes to re­place her.

John­son quit the for­eign min­is­ter post last July in protest over May’s plans for a so-called soft Brexit, which would main­tain close trade ties with Europe.

A timetable set out Fri­day by se­nior Con­ser­va­tive Party of­fi­cials said they hoped to have vot­ing rounds con­cluded by the end of June, mean­ing a new prime min­is­ter would prob­a­bly be in place by mid-July.

Re­gard­less, May will still be in of­fice when Pres­i­dent Trump ar­rives June 3 for a visit.

De­spite the tra­di­tional “spe­cial re­la­tion­ship” be­tween the United States and Bri­tain, May’s re­la­tion­ship with Trump has been a rocky one. Even be­fore his elec­tion, Trump was a Brexit en­thu­si­ast, claim­ing to have pre­dicted the ref­er­en­dum out­come. In of­fice, he has den­i­grated the EU and sug­gested that Bri­tain would be bet­ter off on its own.

As a can­di­date in 2016, Trump be­came friendly with Nigel Farage, a prom­i­nent Brexit pro­po­nent who emerged from Bri­tain’s po­lit­i­cal far right and now heads the new Brexit Party. After Trump was elected, he sug­gested that Farage, al­ready a thorn in May’s side, be named as Lon­don’s am­bas­sador to Washington — a sug­ges­tion May’s gov­ern­ment po­litely re­buffed.

The prime min­is­ter’s de­par­ture will trig­ger a fierce party lead­er­ship con­test in which any Con­ser­va­tive law­maker can run. The early front-run­ner is John­son, but there will prob­a­bly be an ar­ray of con­tenders. For­eign Sec­re­tary Jeremy Hunt an­nounced his can­di­dacy Fri­day, the first of May’s Cabi­net to do so.

Trib­utes to May poured in after her speech — in­clud­ing from some po­lit­i­cal fig­ures who had pil­lo­ried her in re­cent days as her res­ig­na­tion came to be seen as in­evitable. Most cen­tered on praise of her grit and tenac­ity, while sidestep­ping crit­i­cism of her in­abil­ity to strike a Brexit deal.

“A very dig­ni­fied speech,” wrote fel­low Con­ser­va­tive politi­cian An­drea Lead­som, who re­signed from May’s Cabi­net this week, say­ing she had no con­fi­dence in the gov­ern­ment’s Brexit strat­egy. “She did her ut­most, and I wish her all the very best.”

Do­minic Raab, who’d re­signed as May’s Brexit sec­re­tary and is con­sid­ered a lead­er­ship con­tender, called May a “ded­i­cated pub­lic ser­vant, pa­triot and Con­ser­va­tive.”

Heart­felt praise also came from some EU lead­ers who have been vis­i­bly frus­trated by Bri­tish in­fight­ing and law­mak­ers’ in­abil­ity to move for­ward.

French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron sent a per­sonal mes­sage to May. “She has led a coura­geous ef­fort to make Brexit hap­pen,” his spokes­woman said.

Cameron, the for­mer prime min­is­ter who — per­haps un­wit­tingly — set the years-long Brexit bat­tle in mo­tion, said he felt May’s pain.

The prime min­is­ter, he said, faced huge dif­fi­cul­ties but “worked in­cred­i­bly hard to over­come them.”

Alas­tair Grant As­so­ci­ated Press

THERESA MAY an­nounces her res­ig­na­tion as Bri­tish prime min­is­ter, a job she says was “the honor of my life to hold.” A suc­ces­sor is likely to be in place in July.

Oli Scarff AFP/Getty Im­ages

BORIS JOHN­SON, the for­mer for­eign sec­re­tary and Lon­don mayor, is vy­ing to re­place May. “We will leave the EU on Oct. 31, deal or no deal,” he told an au­di­ence.

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