May defends Brexit deal, opponents plot no-confidence vote

Updated 31 Jan 2019

Email

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on November 16, 2018. — AFP
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on November 16, 2018. — AFP

LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May won the backing of the most prominent Brexiteer in her government on Friday as she fought to save a draft European Union divorce deal that has stirred up a plot to force her out of her job.

More than two years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, it is still unclear how, on what terms or even if the world’s fifth largest economy will leave the bloc as planned on March 29, 2019.

Just hours after announcing that her senior ministers had collectively backed her divorce deal, May’s premiership was thrust into its most perilous crisis to date when her Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab resigned on Thursday in opposition to the agreement.

Other mutinous lawmakers in her party have openly spoken of ousting her and said bluntly that the Brexit deal would not pass parliament.

But May, who has defiantly vowed to stay on as prime minister, got a rare boost on Friday when Michael Gove, the most prominent Brexit-supporting minister, gave his backing to her, saying he would stay on as environment minister.

Asked if he had confidence in May, Gove, who is famous for sinking former foreign minister Boris Johnson’s leadership bid in 2016, told reporters: “I absolutely do.” “I think it’s absolutely vital that we focus on getting the right deal in the future, and making sure that in the areas that matter so much to the British people we can get a good outcome,” said Gove, 51, a potential successor to May.

Trade minister Liam Fox, another leading Brexit supporter, also joined Gove in backing May — but her future remains uncertain.

The first question she faced on a LBC radio phone-in show to defend her deal was from a caller who asked her to “respectfully stand down”. She did not immediately address that part of the caller’s question.

Stephen Barclay, a little-known junior health minister, was appointed as the new Brexit secretary, although the status of the role was downgraded from chief negotiator with May leading the completion of talks with the EU. “He will be doing the domestic role. The PM will be completing the last 10 days of negotiations,” May’s spokesman said.

Sterling, which has see-sawed on Brexit news since the referendum, was up half a cent against the dollar at $1.2834 on Friday.

Politicians, officials and diplomats in London openly questioned how long May had left as speculation swirled that a leadership challenge could come soon.

Under Conservative Party rules, a vote must take place when 48 of her lawmakers submit letters to the party’s so-called 1922 committee, chaired by a senior lawmaker, Graham Brady.

Influential Brexit-supporting lawmaker Steve Baker said rebels in May’s party were close to the threshold which would trigger a confidence vote. So far, at least 21 lawmakers have publicly said they have submitted letters.

“I think we’re probably not far off,” said Baker, a key figure in the Brexit-backing wing of May’s party. “I think it probably is imminent, yes,” he told BBC TV.

British political correspondents also reported that Gove, Fox and other pro-Brexit ministers would meet this weekend to amend May’s deal. However, both the Irish and Dutch prime ministers said there was little scope to change the proposals.

Since winning the top job in the turmoil that followed the 2016 referendum, May’s tumultuous premiership has been characterised by an obdurate flair for survival despite frequent crises.

May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, said she would win a vote of no confidence, in which she would need a simple majority of the total votes cast by her lawmakers.

“If those letters were to go in, I think that she would win any such vote decisively, and she’d deserve to do so,” Lidington said in a broadcast clip. If May stayed on in power without a divorce deal that could be approved, the ultimate outcome of Brexit would be uncertain.

Published in Dawn, November 17th, 2018