A tearful Theresa May announced she was quitting the job it had been the “honour of my life to hold” as she set out the timetable for her exit from Number 10.
The Prime Minister said she will resign as Tory leader on June 7, paving the way for the potentially brutal contest to replace her to begin the following week.
In an emotional statement in Downing Street, with husband Philip and her closest aides watching on, Mrs May said it was in the “best interests of the country” for a new prime minister to lead efforts to deliver Brexit.
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.”
The Prime Minister – who had an audience with the Queen on Wednesday – said she had kept the monarch informed of her plans and will remain in office until the leadership process is concluded.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Mrs May’s replacement should call an immediate general election.
Mrs May’s decision to finally name the date for her resignation 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 motion of confidence in her leadership eventually forced the Prime Minister’s hand.
Her announcement came following a meeting with Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee.
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.”
With Brexiteer Boris Johnson the current favourite to replace her, and former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab his nearest contender, Mrs May warned against a hardline approach, saying a consensus was necessary.
“Such a consensus can only be reached if those on all sides of the debate are willing to compromise,” she said.
Within minutes of the Prime Minister’s statement, Cabinet colleagues – including some who have ambitions to replace her – paid tribute to Mrs May.
And Mr Johnson, who quit as the Prime Minister’s foreign secretary over Brexit, praised her “dignified” statement and “stoical” service.
A very dignified statement from @theresa_may. Thank you for your stoical service to our country and the Conservative Party. It is now time to follow her urgings: to come together and deliver Brexit.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) May 24, 2019
But he said it was now time to “come together and deliver Brexit”.
Earlier, in a sign that the leadership race to replace Mrs May is already under way, Helen Grant quit as Conservative vice chair for communities to “actively and openly” support Dominic Raab.
It is with regret that I have today resigned as @Conservatives Vice Chair for Communities. Now is the time for new leadership to deliver Brexit and unite our Party and our Country. pic.twitter.com/vNzRi0MYTK
— Helen Grant MP (@HelenGrantMP) May 24, 2019
She quit her Tory party role to avoid any “perception of a conflict” between Mr Raab’s campaign and Conservative HQ.
Ms Grant 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”.
Within the Cabinet, Environment Secretary Michael Gove – who stood in the 2016 leadership race and may consider another bid – said Mrs May “deserves our respect and gratitude”.
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock, another potential leadership contender, said it was an “incredibly moving and dignified” speech.
Incredibly moving and dignified speech from the Prime Minister. She has given all in service of her country. Thank you Theresa.
— Matt Hancock (@MattHancock) May 24, 2019
Cabinet ministers who led the revolt over the Prime Minister’s last-ditch Brexit plan also joined in the tributes.
A moving speech from a Prime Minister who deserves our respect and gratitude. Thank you @theresa_may
— Michael Gove (@michaelgove) May 24, 2019
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who met Mrs May on Thursday to deliver his assessment that her Brexit deal would never pass, said the Prime Minister was a “true public servant”.
I want to pay tribute to the PM today. Delivering Brexit was always going to be a huge task, but one she met every day with courage & resolve. NHS will have an extra £20bn thanks to her support, and she leaves the country safer and more secure. A true public servant.
— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) May 24, 2019
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”.
Nobody could have worked harder or had a greater sense of public duty than the Prime Minister. Her dedication in taking our country forward has been monumental. She has served her country with fortitude and we are grateful to her for it.
— Sajid Javid (@sajidjavid) May 24, 2019
Scottish Secretary David Mundell, who had raised concerns about Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill opening the door to a second referendum – a move which could have been “exploited” by the SNP to call for another independence vote – said “nobody could have worked harder or shown a greater sense of public duty”.
But he added it was “time to get on with the process” of choosing her successor.
Mr Corbyn said Mrs May had finally accepted “she cannot govern and nor can her divided and disintegrating party”.
“The last thing the country needs is weeks of more Conservative infighting followed by yet another unelected prime minister,” he said.
“Whoever becomes the new Conservative leader must let the people decide our country’s future, through an immediate general election.”