‘The Next Seven Days Are Critical,’ Theresa May Says
Posted November 18, 2018 1:19 p.m. EST
LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May said on Sunday that she would hold more talks in Brussels this week over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union while she battles twin threats at home: a possible no-confidence vote on her leadership and new resignations from her fractious Cabinet.
May faces a perilous few days after her draft agreement provoked two Cabinet resignations and such widespread objections from lawmakers of all political persuasions that the document looks unlikely to win Parliament’s approval.
“This isn’t about me,” May said on Sky News. “This is about the national interest. The next seven days are critical.”
Since Britons voted in 2016 to quit the European Union, May’s Conservative Party has been split between those who want to keep close economic ties with the bloc and a more hard-line faction that wants a clean break.
But since an agreement on a draft deal on the process known as Brexit was announced, those arguments have exploded in public, leaving the government in disarray, Parliament seemingly deadlocked and the future uncertain after March 29, when Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union.
May said that she planned to visit the Belgium capital this week, before a summit meeting of EU leaders on Nov. 25 that was called to discuss the draft plan.
May dug deep in her television interview, as she has so often done during the Brexit saga, insisting that she will not be deflected from her strategy.
“A change of leadership at this point isn’t going to make the negotiations any easier, and it’s not going to change the parliamentary arithmetic,” she said. “What it will do is mean there is a delay to those negotiations and that’s a risk that Brexit gets delayed or frustrated.”
A group of pro-Brexit Cabinet ministers is pressing for a variety of changes that they hint will decide whether they can stay in the Cabinet and support the deal.
In reality, May is unlikely to secure any concessions that address her critics’ main fear: that Britain could be tied indefinitely to EU rules over which it has no influence and no clear escape route.
Yet further negotiations may at least buy her time to tamp down the crisis and produce promises for a longer-term trade plan that may be more palatable for hard-line Brexit supporters.
Also speaking on Sky News on Sunday, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, appeared to soften his personal opposition to the idea of holding another referendum on the terms of an exit deal, including the option to remain.
A second referendum was “an option for the future, but it’s not an option for today,” said Corbyn, who opposes May’s plan.
His colleague Keir Starmer told The Observer newspaper that Labour would try to pass a law in Parliament to make it impossible to leave the bloc without a deal.
“If the prime minister’s deal is rejected — and that’s looking increasingly likely — Parliament will not just sit back and allow her to proceed,” Starmer said.
The immediate focus in Westminster, however, is on whether May can keep her post. Hard-line Brexit supporters within the Conservative Party believe that they will soon have the 48 letters required to hold a no-confidence motion.
As the process is conducted in private, the only person who knows how close they are is Graham Brady, the chairman of the committee that oversees the election of Conservative Party leaders. He told the BBC that the threshold had not been met, but would not say exactly how many letters have come in, adding that he had not even shared that information with his wife.
Even if May’s critics muster the number to force the vote, her supporters believe she could survive because her enemies do not agree on a successor and would have to persuade a majority of the 315 Conservative lawmakers to oust her.
But she also has trouble in her Cabinet, where her draft withdrawal agreement has been criticized by several ministers. Two have resigned so far, including Dominic Raab, the chief Brexit negotiator. If more Cabinet ministers quit, it would raise further questions about May’s ability to carry on.
When she travels to Brussels, May is unlikely to secure any significant changes to the terms of the draft agreement. These include Britain’s fee for leaving the union, the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and vice versa, and plans to prevent physical checks at the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which will remain in the European Union.
European officials have made it clear that they are in no mood to reopen the withdrawal agreement, but there is scope for negotiation over a vaguer, nonbinding agreement on long-term trade — something that May could use to win over critics.
For now, there seems to be agreement on only one thing: A crucial moment is approaching for Britain.