LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May dropped a bombshell Wednesday when she said she was prepared to step down before the next phase of Brexit negotiations, bowing to pressure from Conservatives in her party who want her to resign, such as former foreign secretary Boris Johnson.
“I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to do what is right for our country and our party,” May told backbench Conservative lawmakers. “I have heard very clearly the mood of the parliamentary party. I know there is a desire for a new approach — and new leadership — in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations, and I won’t stand in the way of that.”
The announcement came after a particularly harrowing week for the British leader, in which she struggled to shore up support for her twice-defeated Brexit deal, expressed regret that Brexit Day was pushed back until at least April 12 and delivered a spectacularly ill-judged speech blaming fellow lawmakers for the Brexit impasse.
Still, it came as a surprise to some that May — known for her doggedness — finally threw in the towel. Or did she? Her statement was a classic May fudge in which there was much that was not said. When, exactly, would she be leaving? What will happen if her unloved Brexit deal doesn’t pass through Parliament?
Regardless, whenever she hands over the keys to 10 Downing Street, the race to replace her is on.
Here are the leading candidates to replace May, and their odds, according to the bookmaker William Hill.
Michael Gove (5-2)
Britain’s environment secretary is the bookmaker’s favorite to replace May. A prominent Brexiteer and one of the Conservative Party’s more cerebral figures, Gove played a key role in the 2016 Vote Leave campaign. He has been loyal to May since returning to the cabinet, but his reputation took a hit after he was accused of betraying Johnson in the 2016 leadership contest.
Boris Johnson (5-1)
Britain’s flamboyant former foreign secretary and a leading Brexiteer is a clear front-runner. Johnson is that rare politician who has cross-party appeal. He served two terms as the mayor of London — an impressive feat in a city that typically votes Labour. But his popularity began to slump after the 2016 European Union referendum, especially in pro-E.U. cities such as London, and he received mixed reviews for his time as foreign secretary. His biggest challenge could be mustering support from fellow lawmakers, needed in the first phase of the leadership race. Even though he isn’t the pinup he once was, his star power is still hard to match.
Jeremy Hunt (7-1)
Jeremy Hunt became foreign secretary after Johnson resigned over May’s handling of Brexit negotiations. Previously, Hunt served as health secretary, a position he held for nearly six years. He voted for Britain to remain in the 2016 referendum but has since said he’s had a change of heart, citing the E.U.’s “arrogance” in the Brexit negotiations.
David Lidington (7-1)
David Lidington is May’s de facto deputy and seen as a safe pair of hands. An affable politician, his name has been bandied about as a potential “caretaker” prime minister. He recently told reporters, “One thing that working closely with the prime minister does is cure you completely of any lingering shred of ambition to want to do that task.”
Sajid Javid (9-1)
Sajid Javid is the first ethnic-minority politician to serve as Britain’s home secretary. A longtime Euroskeptic, he reluctantly backed “remain” in the 2016 referendum. Writing in the Mail on Sunday, he said he voted to remain in the bloc with a “heavy heart and no enthusiasm.” His parents moved to Britain from Pakistan. When Javid took over as home secretary last year, he promised to “do right” by the “Windrush generation” — people invited from Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean to help rebuild Britain after World War II. They could have been “me, my mum or my dad,” he said.
Other front-runners include Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary; Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading Brexiteer; Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons; and Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary.
It is possible May won’t muscle her Brexit deal through Parliament and stay put. Perhaps prime ministerial hopefuls should wait before they start ordering new curtains for 10 Downing Street.