Opinion

Opinion

Theresa May is wounded but still walking toward Brexit

Posted June 22

British Prime Minister Theresa May is a leader bruised and battered. In a matter of weeks she has suffered a toxic combination of an election that left her without a parliamentary majority, public anger at her response to the Grenfell Tower disaster and open criticism of her leadership from senior figures in her own party.

But Thursday she goes to Brussels to meet with European Union leaders. She still appears determined to deliver on her promise to "get on with the job" of governing the country and take Britain out of the EU.

Queen Elizabeth II's speech setting out May's program of new laws for the next two years was stripped of many of the controversial policies on which she fought the election.

There was no mention of plans to end free school meals for primary school children or restrict benefits for pensioners. Proposals to change the rules for social care, dubbed a "dementia tax" by critics, were replaced by a wide-ranging consultation exercise.

One issue dominated the speech and the legislative agenda -- Brexit. Surely it was no accident that the Queen wore a blue hat with a circle of yellow flowers for the occasion, remarkably similar to the blue EU flag with its circle of yellow stars?

Eight of the new bills she announced are intended to make the legal changes needed when Britain leaves the EU in less than two years.

The biggest of these, often called the Great Repeal Bill, will overturn the law that took the UK into what was then the European Community in 1972 and transfer all EU rules that apply in this country into UK law.

The British government will then decide which of these it wants to keep, amend or reject. But with more than 19,000 different rules and regulations to be transposed, getting this bill through Parliament will be complex and time-consuming.

There are other new laws on the way, dealing with customs, trade, immigration, agriculture, fisheries, data protection and nuclear safety once the UK is out of the EU. The details on many of these issues will have to be settled much later in the Brexit process, because so much depends on the negotiations, which have only just begun.

The Immigration Bill is intended to end the free movement of EU nationals into the UK while still attracting the "brightest and best." But there is no indication of how a future visa system might work, and ministers may have to compromise to get access to EU markets.

The Customs Bill will give the UK control of its own customs arrangements, but the new rules will inevitably depend on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

Throughout the two years of this parliamentary term, the main opposition Labour Party will be flexing its newly strengthened muscles to cause the government as much difficulty as possible.

Its socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who did better than expected in the election, said the results showed the country wanted an end to austerity. His party is poised to attack the government's bills one by one.

Labour is committed to delivering on the vote for Brexit but wants to retain the closest possible relationship with the EU afterward. It will fight to protect workers' rights, health and safety rules and environmental measures.

The parliamentary arithmetic means every vote will be close.

So Theresa May faces a rough ride. On Wednesday, she promised "humility and resolve" instead of the "strong and stable leadership" that was the soundbite of her campaign.

She apologized for the government's handling of the Grenfell Tower disaster. She faced a barrage of hostile questions.

Yet the Prime Minister handled it all calmly and with confidence, which had been lacking in recent appearances.

At the moment, there appears to be no appetite for a challenge to unseat her. Conservatives fear a leadership contest now would lead to an early election that they could lose -- hardly an appealing scenario for potential candidates hoping to succeed May.

So, for the time being, the Prime Minister looks set to plough on.

That said, none of her senior colleagues has been able to give any assurances of her prospects of keeping the job. That will depend on how she rises to the huge challenges of governing without a parliamentary majority and taking Britain out of the EU.

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