Either Theresa May or Andrea Leadsom will be the next British prime minister and the person to negotiate Brexit, it emerged Thursday night (7 July), after the pair were voted through to the final round in the contest to replace David Cameron.
It means the UK will have its second female prime minister, after Margaret Thatcher, and that either woman will be the one required to trigger Article 50 – the formal notification to begin the British withdrawal from the EU.
May campaigned for a Remain vote, whilst Leadsom – a little-known outsider – is a zealous Out campaigner.
The final winner, after a vote of Conservative party members this summer, will be announced on 9 September, with both then likely to come under immediate pressure from the remaining 27-member bloc to begin the two-year Brexit negotiation process.
May, the home secretary for the past six years, was and is the favourite, after both Boris Johnson, the former London mayor, and George Osborne, the current chancellor, refused to run.
Michael Gove, the former education secretary who campaigned with Johnson for an ‘out’ vote in the referendum, then declared his former ally unfit to lead, came third in the ballot of MPs on Thursday and was eliminated.
Two women through, one man out
May received the votes of 199 of her colleagues, Leadsom 84, and Gove 46.
Whilst May has served as home secretary and party chairman, Leadsom only became an MP in 2010, and is relatively inexperienced and unknown.
However, her hard-right positions on gay marriage, Europe and fox hunting may go down well with rank-and-file Conservative members, whilst May must convince them that – despite her wish for the UK to remain in the EU – she is the right person to negotiate a probably difficult exit.
Cameron resigned on the morning after the shock referendum result, which has seen sterling plunge against the dollar, and the Bank of England and IMF warn of serious risks ahead for the British economy.
At last week’s EU summit, the other 27 member states agreed to wait for a new British prime minister to trigger Article 50, but there was little sign of patience beyond that.
Whilst German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stressed the need for a calm and measured approach, Paris has already declared the legal notification should come as soon as possible.
Support for Ireland’s main opposition party Fianna Fail has surged since its decision to back Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s minority government from opposition, resulting in a nine percentage point lead, an opinion poll showed on Thursday (7 July).
In a speech earlier on Thursday, Leadsom said her focus would be on “the continued success of the UK economy”.
“Prosperity should be our goal, not austerity,” she said.
Leadsom dismissed predictions of economic disaster, noting the FTSE 100 index of leading shares had rebounded after an initial fall and government borrowing costs were now lower.
The pound hit a fresh 31-year low against the dollar on Wednesday, but
Leadsom said a weak currency was good for exports and inward investment.
Questions have been raised about Leadsom’s qualifications for the top job, and she did not address reports that she has exaggerated her experience in the financial sector before she entered the House of Commons in 2010.
In its warning on Tuesday (5 July), the Bank of England highlighted the particular vulnerability of the commercial real estate market in the wake of the EU vote.
The following day, three British commercial property funds suspended trading in the wake of a rush to sell, bringing the total to six, with assets totalling around £15 billion (17.6 billion euros, $19.5 billion).
Another problem in the ‘in-tray’ of the next prime minister is Scotland, which voted universally to stay within the EU.
Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, has made it clear a Brexit could trigger a second Scottish independence referendum, and that Scotland’s ‘future remains within the EU.’