Theresa May Likely To Be U.K.'s Second Female Prime Minister After Only Rival Quits Race

Theresa May
Home Secretary Theresa May at a news conference, London, March 23, 2015. May will become the U.K.'s prime minister on Wednesday. Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May looks set to become Britain's second female prime minister after Andrea Leadsom, the energy minister and rival for the Conservative leadership, dropped out of the race to succeed David Cameron.

Speaking outside her home on Monday, Leadsom said: "The referendum result demonstrated a clear desire for change. Strong leadership is needed urgently to begin the work of withdrawing from the European Union."

She said that the nine-week leadership campaign ahead was not in the best interests of the country, and that "we now need a new prime minister in place as soon as possible."

And Leadsom added that her support among Conservative MPs was not high enough "to lead a strong and stable government should I win the leadership election."

Leadsom had secured the support of 84 MPs in a secret ballot, which put her in second place behind May, who had the backing of 199. The pair had been set to battle it out for the top job in a nine-week campaign before a vote among the party membership.

Whether May now automatically takes the leadership, and thus takes over from Cameron as prime minister, is expected to be formally confirmed this afternoon. Britain's only female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was in office from 1979 until 1990.

Graham Brady, the chairman of the party's 1922 committee that runs the leadership election, told reporters on Monday that May was the "only remaining candidate" but that he needed agreement from the party's board before he would be able to "formally confirm" if she had won as a result of Leadsom's decision.

Leadsom was the only remaining candidate who had backed a "Brexit" vote in Britain's EU referendum, and many on the Euroskeptic right of the Conservative party and in the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) had hoped she would win, amid delays on the formal implementation of the U.K.'s departure from the EU.

But on Monday, Leadsom said that May was "ideally placed to implement Brexit on the best possible terms for the British people," and stressed that the home secretary had "promised that she will do so."

Relatively inexperienced at the highest levels of national politics, Leadsom appeared to have reacted badly over the weekend to a story published in The Times on Saturday that claimed she had said she would be better as prime minister than May because she had children. She apologized to May, who is childless, but said her words were misinterpreted and described the pressure of the race as "shattering" in a Daily Telegraph interview published Monday.

Others in the party had also expressed concern about the potential dangers of electing a leader unpopular among MPs. Paul Goodman, editor of the influential ConservativeHome website, had urged his readers to vote for May for this reason. "A win for [Leadsom] in the second stage of the contest would be a Jeremy Corbyn victory—in other words, an empty one," he wrote.