Race for Number 10 kicks off as May ends three-year reign as Tory leader with low-key exit

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EU and UK flags are seen outside the Westminster Abbey in London, Britain, March 14, 2019. (Xinhua/Han Yan)

The countdown to Theresa May's reign as Britain's prime minister started Friday when she resigned as leader of the governing Conservative Party.

May, the second female prime minister in British history after Margaret Thatcher, will remain as caretaker prime minister until her successor is chosen at the end of July.

The formal process to decide who will be the next occupant of Number 10 kicks off Monday when nominations open among Conservative MPs wanting to bid for the top job in British politics. The winner of the party leadership race will automatically become the next prime minister.

Low-key exit

May's three-year reign as leader of the Conservative Party ended with a behind-the-scenes exchange of letters between her and the 1922 Committee, the body that represents backbench MPs.

A spokesperson with the Prime Minister's Office told Xinhua Friday that May's formal removal as Conservative Party leader is not expected to be marked by any ceremony or fanfare.

May became Britain's prime minister in 2016 after her predecessor David Cameron resigned following a referendum in which 51.9 percent of voters were in favor of leaving the European Union (EU) after more than 40 years of membership.

The decision to leave the EU came as a shock to the political establishment convinced that it would be a repeat of a 1975 referendum when people voted by a large margin to keep the country's link to Brussels.

It quickly put May on a collision course with politicians in the Parliament on what kind of Brexit to pursue.

With more than 400 so-called "remainers" among the 650 Westminster MPs, it soon became apparent that May's job of bringing Britain out of the EU had become a mission impossible.

Although she had voted to remain, May insisted from day one of her tenure at Downing Street that the will of the British people must be respected.

MPs backed the process for leaving the bloc by triggering Article 50 to end Britain's membership on March 29. Twice the deadline has been extended with the clock now ticking towards Oct. 31.

A deal May brokered after intensive negotiations with Brussels spectacularly crashed in the House of Commons when it was defeated by a margin of 230, the biggest ever rejection in British political history.

She made two further unsuccessful attempts to win parliamentary approval, with many of her own MPs joining opposition politicians to reject her deal.

Leadership race

The process to find May's successor starts on Monday, although the race for the top job in British politics has kicked off with 11 contenders throwing their hats into the ring.

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson has emerged as a favorite to win, with his successor at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Jeremy Hunt, being seen as another hopeful.

The Guardian newspaper said that if Johnson wins the race, he could face an immediate vote of no confidence in the House of Commons after he made a statement insisting Britain must leave the EU on Oct. 31, with or without a deal.

Since the top job goes to the leader of the governing party at Westminster, and the British people will not choose their prime minister through election, there is criticism that around 140,000 members of the Conservative Party will determine the next occupant of 10 Downing Street.

One political commentator said it means the crucial job of picking May's successor will be made by "a group of elderly people around the country," a reference to much of the Conservative Party's membership.

On Monday, MPs wanting to join the race will hand in their nominations. The final list will be announced around 5 p.m.(1600 GMT) on the day.

Only then will it be known whether all 11 candidates who have announced their intention to run for the job have handed in nomination papers or not, or whether more names will be added.

Over the following days more than 300 Conservative MPs at Westminster will vote on the long list of names, using a process of elimination until only two names are left.

Those two names will then be put to a ballot of party members, with a result likely to be announced towards the end of July.

Polls among Conservative party members have so far placed Boris Johnson at the top of their list, but his chances of becoming the new prime minister will depend on whether his name will be one of the two finalists.

"Johnson may not deliver, and in my opinion he is likely to come up against exactly the same problems as May," said political expert Anthony Glees, who is also a professor from the University of Buckingham.

The Conservative Party has been badly stung by the emerging Brexit Party, launched just two months ago by veteran Eurosceptic Nigel Farage. His new party stormed to the top place in the recent European Parliament elections.

Friday saw the Conservatives pushed into the third place in a parliamentary by-election, with the Brexit Party coming tantalizingly close to winning a Westminster seat.

"It seems to have been taken as read that the Conservative members in picking a leader to succeed May is also picking the next prime minister. But what happens if that person is unable to command a majority in the House of Commons?" said Professor Iain Begg from the London School of Economics.

This could happen either because the Democratic Unionist Party calls a halt to its support in the House of Commons for the minority Conservative government, or a handful of Conservative MPs decide to oppose May's successor, said Begg, adding "Neither is implausible."

Once the winner of the leadership contest is announced, May will head to Buckingham Palace to tell the Queen she is handing over the job.

Brexit future

The current candidates vying to become Britain's next prime minister have set out to handle the toughest task in British politics -- to deliver Brexit.

The success of the rookie Brexit Party, meanwhile, has fuelled fears among Conservative party managers that a general election could happen in the near future.

"Farage and Johnson are competing to be the British version of (Donald) Trump. Those Conservatives holding firm to their party will believe what Johnson is busy telling them, that only he can defeat Farage and destroy the Brexit party," Glees told Xinhua.

"It seems to me that the more the Conservatives try to out Farage, the less well they will do. I think they are the really big losers here," he added.

Glees believes that the long-standing tradition of politics in Britain being dominated by a two-party system, Conservative and Labour, has changed as a result of the impasse over Brexit.

"In effect there are only two real political parties now, Leave and Remain, and we could well be seeing a fundamental structural change in our party system as a result," he said.

Whether it is Johnson, Hunt or one of the other contenders, political experts view Brexit as a poisoned chalice.

Options include leaving the EU with no deal, agreeing on a compromise deal with Brussels, asking for another extension to allow the new prime minister to steer a withdrawal deal through parliament, or not leaving the EU at all.

British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, celebrating Labour's win in the Peterborough by-election hours later, repeated his call for a general election to stop the Conservatives bringing in a no-deal option.

That would be seen by the Conservatives as the nuclear option, threatening the very survival of Britain's governing party.

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