May’s party is split over how to leave EU as time runs out for finalising UK’s policy
LONDON • Brexit campaigners in the UK’s governing Conservative Party would be “foolish” to try to overthrow Theresa May (picture), Cabinet Minister Liam Fox warned, as the prime minister (PM) battles critics on multiple fronts.
May is grappling with a rebellion from members of her party who want her to deliver a quick, clean break from the European Union (EU), and others who say she’s failing as leader and must be replaced. There are media reports that a growing number of Tories are plotting to call a vote of no confidence in May in an attempt to oust her.
Fox, the international trade secretary, had a warning for Conservatives thinking of sending letters to the party authorities demanding a confidence vote on May’s leadership. “They would be foolish to do anything to destabilise the government and the PM,” Fox told Bloomberg News in London.
He added: “Nothing will change the electoral arithmetic.” Tories only have a working majority in Parliament thanks to the Democratic Unionist Party.
The government has been given the task of delivering Brexit and “the PM has shown the resilience” to do the job, Fox said.
“Ultimately we have to get an agreement that will please different wings of the Conservative Party but most importantly that is good for the country and delivers on what the electorate have instructed us to do.”
May’s party is split over how to leave the EU as time runs out for finalising the UK’s policy. Opponents of retaining EU trade rules after a divorce want her to fire Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, who they say is trying to deny them the clean, quick break they want.
Even US President Donald Trump offered a critical assessment of May’s handling of Brexit, saying in an interview broadcast at the weekend he’d have taken a “tougher stand”.
May’s difficulties are mounting at a crucial time for her negotiations with the EU and the passage of vital legislation through Parliament that ultimately could derail her timetable or force her into more concessions that could enrage those worried it will become a Brexit in name only.
Talks are about to begin in Brussels on the transitional phase, which is designed to give businesses certainty that nothing will change for up to two years after Britain leaves the bloc in 2019.
Instead of providing reassurance, the Tory debate over transitional arrangements has thrown May’s plans into disarray. She’s proposing a status-quo bridging period where the UK keeps to the rules of the EU single market and customs union. That’s unacceptable to many Brexit-supporting Tories, who see such a plan as a potential trap.
On Sunday, eurosceptic Tories demanded that May show she’s serious about quitting the EU’s single market and customs union. They think her plan for a transition phase will tie Britain too closely to the bloc’s rules for too long.
“There’s no clear destination either in the government’s mind or indeed agreed with the EU, and there’s no set time limit” on the transition phase, said Conservative parliamentarian and hard-line Brexit supporter Jacob Rees-Mogg. “One friend of mine said that it looked more like a plank than a bridge,” he said on ITV’s “Peston on Sunday” show.
Last Thursday, Hammond enraged Brexit backers by saying he hoped the UK and EU economies would only move “very modestly apart”. Rees-Mogg said Hammond’s stance spelled “real trouble” for the government.
“How long has the PM got?” said Johnny Mercer, a Tory lawmaker at a panel held by the Resolution Foundation. “I am of the view that any sort of change in leadership is not helpful at the moment and I don’t support that but I do think the window is closing because politics can be quite a brutal game.”
Meanwhile, the bumpy journey toward Brexit reaches another fork in the road this week as the upper chamber of the British Parliament plans to rewrite a key piece of May’s legislation.
The law aims to replicate thousands of existing EU regulations so there’s no legal black hole on the day Britain’s membership ceases, currently set for March 29 next year. That process could go awry if the lords halt or, more likely, demand changes that might include delaying the exit date or increasing the chance of second public vote on the issue.
“Drama is not a word usually associated with the House of Lords,” said Tom Strathclyde, a Conservative peer who used to guide legislation through the upper house. “On this occasion, there really could be high drama.” — Bloomberg