Photographer: Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

U.K.'s May Targets Young Voters as She Looks to Silence Plotters

  • PM will freeze tuition fees and boost help for home buyers
  • Tory Party’s disarray said to frustrate EU Brexit negotiators

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May will seek to take back control of the U.K. political agenda and assert her authority over her Conservative Party at the start of its annual conference in Manchester on Sunday.

Beset by questions over her leadership and plots to replace her, the embattled leader will announce the extension of a program to help people buy their own homes, as well as a freeze in student tuition fees in a bid to attract support from young voters.

“I set my government a mission to make our country a fairer place. Today, I announce the next steps in that mission,” May said in a statement. “More help for students and graduates with tuition fees and billions of pounds of investment that will help thousands more people get a home of their own” are “key parts of my plan to spread opportunity and build a better future for our country,” she said.

May lost her majority -- and authority within her party -- after a disastrous performance in the June general election. Now she wants to be seen taking the initiative as she tries to blunt a leadership challenge. Cabinet rivals including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis have been suggested as replacements, and the Sunday Times newspaper cited allies of Johnson saying he expects her to be gone in a year.

The jockeying for May’s job has added uncertainty to negotiations for Britain’s break with the European Union. Johnson fed into the confusion on Saturday when he warned in an interview with the Sun newspaper that he has four “red lines” for May. The transition should be two years and “not a second more,” he said. Further, the U.K. should stop accepting EU court decisions during the transition, must not accept any new rules, and must stop paying for access to the single market after the period ends, he said.

Mixed Messages

EU officials are already said to be frustrated by the mixed messages coming out of London, with Davis seeming to take a harder line than May in talks last week. In her speech in Florence on Sept. 22, the prime minister said the U.K. will honor its commitments -- a comment regarded as code for paying the Brexit bill -- but three days later Davis warned the U.K. would only settle the bill if the EU agrees a new trade deal at the same time.

Davis and Johnson’s uncompromising lines on quitting the EU will be welcomed by some party activists, who were euphoric at the 2016 conference held months after Britain had voted to leave the bloc. The issue will again dominate the event, but this time May will struggle to stop plotting and recriminations swamping her attempts to set out her domestic agenda and regain some authority.

Her focus on the youth vote comes after younger people voted overwhelmingly for the opposition Labour Party in June’s general election. May knows she will need to win their support if her party is to stand a chance in the next general election, which must be held by 2022.

Fees Frozen

University tuition fees will be frozen while the system for setting them is reviewed, and the salary threshold at which graduates have to start paying back will be increased to 25,000 pounds ($33,500) a year from 21,000 pounds, May’s office said.

The Conservatives will also announce a 10-billion-pound extension to the “Help to Buy: Equity Loan” program, under which the government lends buyers as much as 20 percent of the cost of a new home. The extension is expected to help an extra 135,000 people buy a home, May’s office said.

“Making progress as a nation means supporting young people and families to achieve their dreams of home ownership,” Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said. “Conservatives will always help those who work hard and save for the future.”

At his party’s conference in Brighton last week, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn enjoyed the kind of celebrations seen at last year’s Tory conference, as activists savored the aftermath of erasing May’s majority in the June election.

Corbyn, who won the backing of young people by pledging to reverse the Tories’ austerity policies, abolish tuition fees and invest in public services, said his party is ready for government and “primed and ready to roll” whenever the next election may be.

Most recent opinion polls show Labour slightly ahead of the Conservatives. May will appeal to her party to unite to face the threat of being thrown out of power.

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