May’s political nightmare getting worse

Unfortunately for UK business, looking for more detail on Brexit, May’s words were a reiteration of her existing position


LONDON • Life for UK Prime Minister Theresa May (picture) keeps getting harder.

May spent yesterday morning swerving questions about Brexit, tax evasion and sexual harassment in front of an audience of business titans. That was after the president of Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said the talks on leaving the European Union (EU) resembled a “soap opera”.

Unfortunately for business, looking for more detail on Brexit, May’s words were a reiteration of her existing position and vague reassurances to a sceptical audience that she understood that “a strictly time limited implementation period will be crucial to our future success”.

From the podium, CBI president Paul Drechsler warned her that “the clock is ticking” — a refrain EU negotiator Michel Barnier is fond of saying too — with many companies on the point of implementing the plans they’ll need if her negotiations fail to secure a trade deal.

Meanwhile, the pressure to get ahead of the sexual harassment scandal that is rocking Westminster continued.

Last week saw the prime minister lose her defence secretary, and announce that her most senior official will investigate her deputy, Damian Green, over claims he behaved inappropriately towards a woman writer. At least six other Conservative lawmakers are under investigation either by civil servants, the party or the police. Allegations have also been made against Labour Party lawmakers and officials.

Green, 61, denied in the strongest terms a Sunday Times newspaper report that police found pornography on one of his parliamentary computers in 2008. He called the claims by a former top police official “completely untrue” and “political smears”, and wrote in a statement posted on Twitter that the allegations were “little more than an unscrupulous character assassination”.

In her speech, May said the British political establishment needed to meet the same standards that businesses did in terms of protecting employees from harassment and bullying.

But afterwards, she didn’t answer a question about whether she had been aware of any allegations before the scandal broke.

She did say that she had acted on allegations that have yet to be published.

“What has happened is over the last week a number of stories have appeared in the press, a number of issues were raised with me that did not appear in the press and as you can see action has been taken,” the prime minister said.

May’s authority has been eroded since she unexpectedly lost her parliamentary majority in June’s snap election. Her weakened state regularly begs the question of how long she can last before she’s ousted — or if she limps on as the Tories keep fighting over Europe.

If there’s to be a tipping point it could happen any time in such a politically charged climate. Today’s scandal is about the pervasive culture of sexual misconduct in the halls of powers; in June, May was on the defensive when a fatal fire in a London housing tower brought to the surface public anger at years of austerity under the Tories.

In the short term, May could come under pressure to reshuffle her team. Green is being investigated by the Cabinet office for earlier claims of inappropriate behaviour, and the latest allegation will also be taken up by the same body.

“There’s an opportunity for a changing of the guard and that could benefit her,” said Justin Fisher, professor of politics at Brunel University.

“Under unpleasant circumstances, it could be a good way of renewing the Cabinet and refreshing the look of the party, which does look a bit tired at the top.”

Whether May, 61, feels she has the political breathing room to do that, or even wants to, is another thing. She’s nine seats short of a parliamentary majority and reliant on support from 10 members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to keep governing.

The suspension of any Conservative lawmaker would whittle that majority even further, and reshuffles can create enemies of demoted politicians.

Tories fear starting a chain of events that could precipitate another general election, potentially ushering the main Opposition into power.

The latest polls indicate Labour would beat the Tories if an election were held now.

For its part, Labour is also tainted by a scandal that has women speaking out about their treatment by male politicians going back years. May was scheduled to meet Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn yesterday to discuss a cross-party approach to the harassment scandal.