The tearful announcement by Theresa May of her resignation as leader of the Conservative Party was, at a human level, deeply distressing. It would have taken the hardest of hearts not to be moved.
Politically, however, the departure of the Prime Minister will come as a considerable relief. Her single-minded adherence to the Withdrawal Agreement, thrice rejected by the House of Commons, betrayed an inflexibility that was never likely to deliver Brexit. Her decision to introduce the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, effectively asking the House the same question for a fourth time, proved the final straw.
The announcement came too late, however, to help the Conservatives in the European Parliamentary elections. The party slumped to its worst defeat in history, most of its vote having clearly migrated to the new Brexit Party, established only six weeks previously. As political kicks in the pants go, it was especially painful.
The political focus now shifts back to Westminster, where the Conservative leadership contest is due to commence on 10 June. At present, the field is of Grand National proportions, but will quickly be reduced to the two candidates who will be put to party’s 160,000 members across the country. By the start of the summer recess in late July, we will know who our next Prime Minister will be.
The events of the last week make the UK’s withdrawal from the EU without a negotiated agreement even more likely. The Conservative Party is now in an existential crisis; its MPs and members fully understand that delivering Brexit no later than 31 October is an absolute necessity if the Brexit Party is not to retain hold of its voters at the next general election.
The new leader will therefore have to promise to leave with or without an agreement, a position that Theresa May should herself have adopted in the negotiations. The signal that the UK would never leave without a deal seriously weakened our bargaining position.
It is true that the House of Commons has voted against “no deal”, but that vote was of political significance only. The legal position under the EU (Withdrawal) Act remains that we leave on 31 October. To change that means changing the law.
Hallowe’en may seem a long way off, but it must be remembered that, after the summer recess, there will be only 24 Commons sittings before exit day – 16 if the Government decides to dispense with the September return. It is very hard to see how a legislative vehicle could be found that could stop Brexit in that short period of time.
The new Prime Minister, therefore, will be in an extremely strong position to push Brexit through and put down the threat posed by the Brexit Party. It will, of course, require great determination and strength of purpose. But those are precisely the qualities that the country will expect of its new leader.
And they are also the qualities we will need to seize the huge opportunities presented by our departure from the EU.