LONDON – Prime Minister David Cameron said Monday he would step down on Wednesday, clearing the way for Theresa May to become Britain’s next leader as the country plots its exit from the European Union.
The announcement by Cameron came just hours after May’s only rival in the race – Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom – unexpectedly abandoned her campaign, saying the country could not afford a drawn-out political contest and needed to launch quickly into the complicated bargaining with the European Union over the split.
Cameron said he would step down on Wednesday, opening the way for May to take the keys to 10 Downing St.
The race to succeed Cameron was supposed to last through the summer. But Leadsom’s campaign got off to a rocky start after she touted her motherhood as an advantage in a match-up with the childless May.
The domino-style spectacle Monday was just the latest twist to a British political season that has been marked by constant surprise and upheaval.
As May takes over, she will be under pressure to trigger the country’s withdrawal from the European Union.
The 59-year-old May will take office having never been voted into the job by anyone beyond lawmakers in the ruling Conservative Party. She will be the first female prime minister in Britain since Margaret Thatcher stepped down in 1990.
Leadsom’s sudden withdrawal appeared to have caught May’s campaign team – and the rest of British politics – off guard.
Leadsom, a relative unknown, had advocated for a British exit from the European Union. She came under intense criticism over the weekend after suggesting to the Times of London that motherhood would make her a better fit for prime minister, and later told the Daily Telegraph that the pressure had been “shattering.” But she did not mention the controversy in her remarks Monday.
Cayman leaders supportive
As the U.K.’s next prime minister, May will bring stability to the governance of affairs in the British Overseas Territories, Premier Alden McLaughlin said Monday.
“This quick leadership change is not only good for the United Kingdom, but also for the overseas territories, bringing to the U.K. and the European Union a semblance of certainty and stability now that a new leader has been chosen,” the premier said in a statement on Monday. “I believe it will also help move along the process of the decision of the United Kingdom voters to leave the European Union.”
Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush also lauded the decision on Monday.
“I have confidence that the U.K. has done the right thing, and its solid foundation will remain strong as the people move to a new future for which they will have full command to direct,” he said. “I wish her all the very best indeed, as I do the people of the U.K. as they negotiate their new position with Europe.”
Premier McLaughlin said territorial representatives are planning to meet in London in October, and he expects the U.K.’s decision to separate from the EU will be a key topic there.
The premier said he believed May would “follow in the steps” of Cameron who has been a “true friend” to the overseas territories.
May campaigned for ‘stay’
May, the country’s home affairs secretary, had campaigned for Britain to stay in the European Union. But the no-nonsense May had repeated that Britain cannot ignore the referendum outcome.
“I couldn’t be clearer: Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it,” she said at a campaign rally Monday morning, before Leadsom quit the race.
The key question now is timing.
May had earlier suggested that the country would wait until next year to trigger its departure. But with European leaders and pro-Brexit politicians pushing for earlier action, she could find that her hand has been forced.
Britain voted last month in a national referendum to get out of the EU, leading Cameron to announce plans to resign after his pro-EU side suffered the loss.
The winner of the leadership contest was supposed to take over from Cameron shortly after results were to be announced on Sept. 9.
“In some ways, given the urgency of the economic and political situation the country is facing, it may have been the best thing to do for the sake of the country and the party,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at London’s Queen Mary University.
Bale said that although the campaign was only days old, Leadsom had already shown that she would “have difficulty coping with the top job in British politics.”
Although another candidate could have conceivably been named to the ballot, there appeared to be no appetite within the party for a summer-long contest involving a vote of the Conservative Party’s 150,000 grass-roots members. May had been a strong favorite to win, having secured a majority of votes among Tory lawmakers last week.
In announcing her decision in front of a dark-brick townhouse in central London, Leadsom endorsed May to take the job and argued that her rival be allowed to take over as soon as possible. Leadsom said her departure from the race will allow the country to move forward with its Brexit plans.
“A nine-week leadership campaign at such a critical moment for our country is highly undesirable,” she said, adding that “business needs certainty.”
Michael Gove, the justice secretary who finished third in last week’s winnowing of candidates, also endorsed May on Monday, and said she should be allowed to take office as soon as possible.
Boris Johnson, the former London mayor and a Leadsom backer, quickly switched allegiances and lined up behind May.
“It is vital that we respect the will of the people and get on with exploiting new opportunities for this country,” Johnson said in a statement, referring to the EU vote.
The sudden shift in the leadership race coincides with a visit to New York by Britain’s finance minister, George Osborne, in efforts to calm global investors uneasy over Britain’s plans for an EU break.
© 2016, The Washington Post; Additional reporting by Compass reporter Brent Fuller