Weakened May Appeals to Opponents to Help Deliver Brexit

  • Prime minister promises to show ‘renewed courage and vigor’
  • Minister says leadership speculation is alcohol-fuelled gossip

U.K.’s Theresa May and the Brexit Process Thus Far

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May will call on opposition lawmakers to help steer Britain out of the European Union as she seeks to reset after her standing was diminished by last month’s disastrous general election.

May, who’s now reliant on the votes of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists to get her agenda through Parliament, will restate her political mission to tackle “injustice and vested interests that threaten to hold us back.” Social and economic reform is needed to make a success of Brexit, she will say in a speech on Tuesday, but in a sign of her weakness will call for cross-party co-operation to deliver it.

Theresa May on July 10.

Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

“I say to the other parties in the House of Commons, come forward with your own views and ideas about how we can tackle these challenges as a country,” May will say, according to extracts of the speech released by her office. “We can play it safe or we can strike out with renewed courage and vigor, making the case for our ideas and values and challenging our opponents to contribute, not just criticize.”

May came under fire from her own party over the weekend as she prepared to publish a draft law this week intended to repeal the U.K.’s membership of the EU, and set a new legal framework for the country after it withdraws from the bloc. Some of her Conservative Party colleagues have talked openly of the need to replace her, while opposition lawmakers are preparing a series of challenges to her Parliamentary authority.

Boost From Trump

May, who took office on July 13, 2016, insists she will still be prime minister in 2018, despite losing her majority. She received a boost on Saturday when U.S. President Donald Trump said a trade deal with the U.K. will be done “very, very quickly.”

But even that met with a mixed reaction, with the Confederation of British Industry urging the government to tread cautiously in its dealings with the U.S. Trade deals are complex “and we don’t want to walk into a bear hug,” CBI President Paul Drechsler told Sky’s “Sophy Ridge on Sunday” show.

May’s weakened position, having lost her majority and now trailing the opposition Labour Party in opinion polls, has reopened the debate over how Brexit should unfold, with some of her own most senior ministers now emboldened to disagree with her.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond last week called for a Brexit deal that keeps Britain close to the EU market, warning “it would be madness” to reject trade ties. In Brussels, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, sent the message that May should forget her dream of a “frictionless” trade deal, and that the road to divorce will be hard.

Disquiet by some in her party was underlined when former Culture Minister Ed Vaizey put his name to a Sunday Telegraph article co-written by Labour lawmaker Rachel Reeves, in which they said Britain should stay in Euratom, an agreement governing nuclear cooperation which May has said she’s withdrawing from as part of Brexit. Eight more Tory lawmakers have signaled they back staying in Euratom, the Evening Standard reported on Monday. That’s enough to cancel out May’s majority in Parliament if it comes to a vote.

In a sign of further obstacles for the prime minister, the chairs of five political blocs representing more than three-quarters of lawmakers in the European Parliament criticized May’s proposals on the rights of EU citizens in Britain post-Brexit. The British plan casts “a dark cloud of vagueness and uncertainty over the lives of millions of Europeans,” they said in a letter in the Guardian on Monday.

“We will never endorse the retroactive removal of rights,” the politicians, led by Guy Verhofstadt, the Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, said in the letter. “The European Parliament will reserve its right to reject any agreement that treats EU citizens, regardless of their nationality, less favorably than they are at present.”

May, who called the June 8 election with the expectation of tightening her grip on the House of Commons and strengthening her hand in Brexit talks, will acknowledge her loss of authority in Parliament in her speech but pledge to fight on as she seeks to put the election result behind her.

“I led a majority government in the House of Commons. The reality I now face as Prime Minister is rather different,” she will say. “In this new context, it will be even more important to make the case for our policies and our values, and to win the battle of ideas both in Parliament as well as in the country.”

Opposition parties are preparing to join forces with rebel lawmakers in May’s own Conservative Party to hamper the progress of the government’s Repeal Bill, which is due to be published this week. It would reverse the European Communities Act of 1972, which gave effect to EU law in the U.K., and graft EU statutes into British law, giving ministers sweeping powers to adapt legislation without parliamentary scrutiny.

For a QuickTake Q&A on the Repeal Bill, click here.

Keir Starmer, Brexit spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, told the BBC it is “highly likely” he’ll seek to amend the bill to limit the role of the executive in changing laws and increase the power of Parliament. His party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has also pledged to preserve EU environmental and employment protections.

Too Much Prosecco

In evidence of cross-party cooperation, former Conservative minister Ed Vaizey co-wrote an article for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper with Labour’s Rachel Reeves, saying Britain should remain in Euratom, the bloc’s nuclear watchdog. May says she wants to quit the regulatory body because it’s subject to rulings by the European Court of Justice.

Justice Secretary David Lidington said the government is focusing on the “real problems” and shouldn’t be distracted by speculation over May’s leadership. That followed a report in the Mail on Sunday newspaper said former cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell had said during a private dinner that May should resign.

“Too much sun, too much warm Prosecco, lead to gossipy stories in the media,” Lidington said in an interview on BBC Television’s “Andrew Marr Show.” Voters want politicians to “go away and deal with the real problems people in this country are facing.”

Mitchell, a close ally of Brexit Secretary David Davis, told Conservative members of parliament at a June 26 dinner that the party needs a new leader, the Mail said, citing a lawmaker at the gathering.

Mitchell downplayed the Mail’s story, describing it in a statement to Bloomberg as “an overheated report of a private dinner conversation.”

— With assistance by Tim Ross

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE