LONDON—British Prime Minister Theresa May formally steps down as Conservative Party leader on Friday, defeated by the Brexit conundrum. No public event is planned to mark the occasion as May’s time at the helm ends, not with a bang but a whimper.
Almost a dozen Conservative lawmakers are already jostling to replace her in a contest that formally opens Monday, vowing to succeed where May failed and renegotiate Britain’s divorce deal with 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.”
Ever since Britain voted by 52%-48% in 2016 to leave the EU, the other 27 nations in the bloc have presented a united front in negotiations, finally agreeing late last year to a detailed divorce plan with May’s government.
Across the English Channel, Brexit has shattered the U.K.’s political map. May’s Conservatives and the main opposition Labour Party are both fractured over how to leave the EU. May’s carefully crafted Brexit deal with the bloc has been thrown out three times by Parliament, and departure day has been postponed from March 29 until Oct. 31.
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 will remain as prime minister for a few weeks while the party picks a successor, who will become Britain’s next prime minister. 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. He said Britain was “on course to leave by October 31,” but he’d be willing to agree to a further delay if needed to finalize a deal.
But the chances that Britain’s 27 EU partners would consider reopening the legally binding divorce 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.
The EU has also completed its no-deal preparations, and while many in Brussels hope Britain’s Parliament would prevent the country crashing out of the bloc, most are reluctantly resigned to the possibility that it could happen.
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. Parliament has repeatedly voted to rule out leaving without a deal, though it’s not clear how lawmakers could stop a prime minister who was determined to do it.
It all adds up to a deeply unstable situation for any new prime minister, who could also face a no-confidence vote triggered by Labour in his or her first days in office.
Leadership candidate Dominic Raab has suggested he’d be willing to suspend Parliament—a process known as prorogation—if legislators looked set to delay or stymie Brexit.
Rivals distanced themselves from that idea, which runs counter to Britain’s tradition of parliamentary sovereignty.
“I am not into this proroguing Parliament rubbish,” said Home Secretary Sajid Javid. “It is just a complete nonsense and anti-democratic and anti-British.”
—Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this story.