A new Prime Minister will be in place by mid-July after a fast track Tory election campaign was set out following Theresa’s May’s tearful announcement yesterday that her turbulent reign will end on 7 June.
Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Aberdonian Michael Gove and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt are among the candidates vying to replace the departing leader whose failure to deliver Brexit proved fatal to her time in office.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already ramped up the pressure on the prospective candidates insisting that a second referendum on independence is now “essential” and warning that a hardline Brexiteer will be bad news for Scotland.
But Scots Tory leader Ruth Davidson warned that Mrs May’s successor must take a strong line on Scotland’s place in the UK, to secure her support.
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Mrs May will stand down as Tory leader on June 7, paving the way for a potentially brutal contest to replace her.
She said it was in the “best interests of the country” for a new prime minister to lead efforts to deliver Brexit, as she announced her resignation yesterday morning.
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.”
Two Brexiteer candidates are leading battle to replace her, with Mr Johnson the favourite followed by former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab. But Ms Sturgeon issued a stark warning about the impact on Scotland of such a scenario.
“The prospect of an even more hardline Brexiteer now becoming PM and threatening a no deal exit is deeply concerning,” the First Minister said.
The Prime Minister will remain in office until the leadership process is concluded.
READ MORE: Brexit: Theresa May pulls key legislation but tries to hold on
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 new Prime Minister will be faced with the immediate task of seeking to resolve the Brexit impasse which has proved beyond Mrs May.
The UK was set to leave the EU in March, but an extension until October has been secured.
French President Emmanuel Macron yesterday urged “swift clarification” on Brexit after Mrs May’s departure.
And EU President Jean-Claude Juncker’s spokeswoman made it clear the new Prime Minister will have little room for manoeuvre in negotiations with Brussels.
“Our position on the Withdrawal Agreement and anything else has been set out - there is no change to that,” she said.
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.
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”.
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”.
Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt was less effusive, but said the Prime Minister “put what she believed was in the national interest first”.
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”.