As Brexit Agonies Continue, Theresa May Is Under Threat Again
Posted January 29, 2018 3:58 p.m. EST
As she prepared on Monday to head to China, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain was leaving behind a Parliament seething with intrigue, with internal critics sniping at her leadership and political adversaries in the House of Lords plotting to derail critical parts of her plan to quit the European Union.
May’s leadership has been questioned off and on since she lost a parliamentary majority in an election in June. In December, she was praised for securing a preliminary deal to unlock more talks on Brexit, as Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc is known. But in recent days, speculation about her political future has come back.
One lawmaker, Heidi Allen, has called on the leadership to “get a grip and lead.”
Another, Johnny Mercer, warned that “the window is closing” on May’s time in power.
Some of May’s problems are the result of poor personnel management, including her promotion of Gavin Williamson as defense secretary last year, after the resignation of Michael Fallon. He has become embroiled in a scandal about his personal life.
At the same time, right-wing enthusiasts for Brexit within May’s Conservative, or Tory, Party have been making trouble, as they increasingly fear that May is siding with factions that prefer a softer Brexit, meaning one that maintains relatively close ties to the European Union.
Until recently, Brexit-supporting Conservatives had been reasonably disciplined, content that May’s negotiating compromises — including agreeing to a divorce payment to the European Union of up to 39 billion pounds — were worth making to secure Brexit, which is due to take place formally in March 2019.
But critics on the right are becoming more vocal in articulating fears that May will agree not to the clean break with the bloc that they crave, but “Brino” — an acronym for Brexit in Name Only.
Businesses are desperate for a transition agreement to avoid an economically ruinous departure next year. But the price of such a deal is to remain subject to European Union laws without a vote on them, paying into the budget and accepting free movement of workers. That has been likened by one prominent hard-line Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to being a “vassal state.”
And a suggestion by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, that the outcome of Brexit might be to move the British and European economies only “very modestly, apart” provoked calls from Brexit supporters for him to be fired.
Not that the pro-Europeans are content with May either.
Debate starts Tuesday in the House of Lords, the unelected second chamber of Parliament, on her Brexit legislation. Her critics hope to pass as many as 10 amendments, including one that would scrap plans to enshrine March 2019’s withdrawal date in law, making it easier to postpone Brexit if negotiations break down.
May’s recent reshuffle of her Cabinet has inadvertently sharpened debate among pro-Brexit right-wingers by promoting some right-wingers into the government, and freeing up the leadership of the European Research Group, a collection of pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers.
That allowed Rees-Mogg to become its new leader, giving an influential platform to the quirky, cartoonish, right-winger who has emerged as a surprise potential candidate to take over from May.
Perhaps in response to that competition, the leading Brexit right-winger in the Cabinet, Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, has raised his profile, straying well beyond his brief to suggest more funding for the health service, then making headlines by calling for the construction of a bridge across the English Channel.
While would-be successors to May, like Johnson, are limbering up, it is not clear that a contest is imminent. There is no agreed candidate to take over from May and both pro- and anti-Europeans worry they might get someone worse.
Any challenge to her would be likely to lead to a bitter fight and expose Conservative Party divisions over Brexit. Then there is the new distraction of Williamson, the defense secretary.
Last week, he told the Daily Mail that, in 2004, when he worked for a manufacturer of fireplaces, he had a relationship with a female colleague that “became flirtatious and a couple of times we shared a kiss.” The Guardian reported that the statement had been made after Williamson’s lawyers had refused to answer questions it had posed, including whether “the woman reported Williamson’s behavior to her line manager and an internal process followed.”
May also faces a series of political and policy challenges, several of which could bring her down. It requires 48 Conservative lawmakers to request a contest, and British media reports suggest that around 40 such requests have been lodged, though that cannot be confirmed.
Strains in the health service and education, and the government’s failure to tackle problems such as housing, illustrate the extent to which Brexit preoccupies the government. In May the Conservatives face local elections, and a poor set of results could put the prime minister under more pressure to quit.
But it all comes back to Brexit. May has survived largely because she has been seen as the compromise figure in a Cabinet split between those who want a clean break with the European Union and those who want Britain to remain closely aligned with the bloc economically, even after Brexit.
As negotiations proceed it may become harder to sit on the fence. May has been reluctant to outline her plans for Britain’s “end state” after Brexit, other than to say she wants something between a Norwegian-style soft Brexit, with very close links to the bloc, and a harder Brexit that would arise from a free trade deal of the type negotiated by Canada.
While business leaders grow increasingly anxious, awkward discussions in the British Cabinet are being postponed, for fear of provoking renewed civil war.
By contrast, the 27 remaining European Union nations have defied their reputation for division by presenting a surprisingly united front. On Monday Sabine Weyand, the bloc’s deputy chief negotiator said European ministers had adopted their guidelines for how a Brexit transition period should look after two minutes of discussion.