The UK will have a new prime minister by the end of July as a tearful Theresa May was finally forced to set out the timetable for her exit from Number 10.
The Prime Minister will end her turbulent reign as Tory leader on June 7, paving the way for a potentially brutal contest to replace her.
The next prime minister is expected to be in Number 10 by the time the Commons rises for its summer recess and leadership contenders are already ramping up their efforts ahead of the official start of the contest.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt indicated he would stand, while bookmakers’ favourite Boris Johnson sought to secure the Brexiteer vote by stressing he would be prepared to back a no-deal departure to ensure the UK leaves the EU on October 31.
In an emotional statement in Downing Street, with husband Philip and her closest aides watching on, Mrs May said it was in the “best interests of the country” for a new prime minister to lead efforts to deliver Brexit.
Her voice cracked as she said: “I will shortly leave the job that it has been the honour of my life to hold – the second female prime minister but certainly not the last.
“I do so with no ill-will, but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.”
With Mr Johnson the current favourite to replace her, and former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab his nearest contender, Mrs May warned against a hardline approach, saying a consensus was necessary.
“Such a consensus can only be reached if those on all sides of the debate are willing to compromise,” she said.
The Prime Minister will remain in office until the leadership process is concluded.
The timetable for the contest will see nominations close in the week of June 10, with MPs involved in a series of votes to whittle what is set to be a crowded field down to a final two contenders.
The Tory hierarchy promised that members and non-members would get the chance to question the would-be prime ministers during the election process.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Mrs May’s replacement should call an immediate general election.
US President Donald Trump, who makes a state visit to the UK in early June, praised Mrs May.
He said: “I feel badly for Theresa.
“I like her very much. She is a good woman. She worked very hard.
“She is very strong.
“She decided to do something that some people were surprised at. Some people weren’t.
“It’s for the good of her country.
“But, I like her very much.
“In fact, I’ll be seeing her in two weeks.”
Mrs May’s statement came after a bitter backlash against her last effort to get a Brexit deal through Parliament.
A Cabinet mutiny and the prospect of the backbench 1922 Committee allowing another confidence motion eventually forced the Prime Minister’s hand.
She insisted she had “done my best” to deliver Brexit and take the UK out of the European Union.
But almost three years after the UK voted to break away from Brussels, Mrs May said: “It is, and will always remain, a matter of deep regret to me that I have not been able to deliver Brexit.
“It will be for my successor to seek a way forward that honours the result of the referendum.”
Mr Hunt, MP for South West Surrey, heavily hinted he will join the race to replace Mrs May, telling his local newspaper the Farnham Herald: “I’ll make the announcement on my own candidacy at the appropriate time.”
An ally of the Foreign Secretary told the Press Association “we will be saying more in the coming days about that”.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson was at a conference in Interlaken, Switzerland, and said he would seek to renegotiate the Brexit deal if he became prime minister.
But he stressed that “you need to be prepared to walk away” without a deal if necessary in order to ensure the UK does actually leave the EU.
Mr Raab, in a sign his campaign is gathering momentum, received a boost as Tory MP Helen Grant quit as a vice chairwoman of the party to back his leadership bid.
She said the former Brexit secretary “has an inspiring vision for a fairer Britain and I think he is undoubtedly the best person to unite the Conservative Party and our country”.
— Dominic Raab (@DominicRaab) May 24, 2019
And Sir Graham Brady quit as the leader of the 1922 Committee – a position which gave him a significant role in the Prime Minister’s departure – in order to consider a leadership bid.
He told the Press Association: “I have been approached by a number of colleagues across the party both inside and outside Parliament asking me to put myself forward as a candidate.
“Therefore I have taken the decision to stand down from the position of chairman of the 1922 Committee in order to ensure a fair and transparent election process.”
Within minutes of the Prime Minister’s statement, Cabinet colleagues – including some who have ambitions to replace her – paid tribute to Mrs May.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove – who stood in the 2016 leadership race and may consider another bid – said Mrs May “deserves our respect and gratitude”.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who had a “frank” discussion with Mrs May about her deal on Thursday, said “nobody could have worked harder or had a greater sense of public duty”.
Nobody could have worked harder or had a greater sense of public duty than the Prime Minister. Her dedication in taking our country forward has been monumental. She has served her country with fortitude and we are grateful to her for it.
— Sajid Javid (@sajidjavid) May 24, 2019
Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt was less effusive, but said the Prime Minister “put what she believed was in the national interest first”.
.@theresa_may ‘s speech today and the manner in which it was delivered, shows why she retained the sympathy of so many of the public. She gave the job her all. She endured. She put what she believed was in the national interest first. Thank you Prime Minister.
— Penny Mordaunt MP (@PennyMordaunt) May 24, 2019
Labour leader Mr Corbyn said: “The last thing the country needs is weeks of more Conservative infighting followed by yet another unelected prime minister.
“Whoever becomes the new Conservative leader must let the people decide our country’s future, through an immediate general election.”
Former prime minister David Cameron offered his sympathy to Mrs May, saying “I know how painful it is to accept that your time is up and a new leader is required”.