May Tells Critics They're Wrong and Should Back Her Brexit Plan

(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May will tell doubters in her Conservative Party Monday that their criticism of her Brexit strategy is “wrong,” and they should get behind her plan.

The hardening of her rhetoric comes after May sought to bind critics in her cabinet into publicly supporting her plan over the weekend, sending ministers out to make the case for it in newspapers and on the airwaves after it was agreed at a tense meeting at her country retreat on Friday.

“In the two years since the referendum result, we have had a spirited national debate, with robust views echoing round the Cabinet table as they have on breakfast tables up and down our country,” May will tell lawmakers in the House of Commons, according to extracts released by her office. “Over that time, I have listened to every possible idea and every possible version of Brexit. This is the right Brexit.”

May’s team met with rank-and-file lawmakers on Saturday morning and Sunday evening, and will hold further meetings on Monday to argue that her plan fits with her party’s election promises and would deliver a break with the EU that protects economic prosperity while delivering key demands from the “Leave” campaign.

Monday Speech

She will address Parliament Monday before speaking to Conservative lawmakers in the backbenches, so called because they’re not in government and are a bellwether of unease.

Among the biggest Brexit-supporting names in the Cabinet, Trade Secretary Liam Fox put his name to a newspaper article backing the plan, and Environment Secretary Michael Gove defended the agreement in a television interview. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, meanwhile, let it be known that he plans to stay in the Cabinet because he feels it’s the best place from which to fight moves to soften the government’s position further.

“I’m a realist,” Gove told the BBC on Sunday, admitting he didn’t like everything about May’s proposal. “One of the things about politics is that you mustn’t, you shouldn’t, make the perfect the enemy of the good. And one of the things about this compromise is that it unites the Cabinet.”

That Cabinet unity caught out Conservative lawmakers who are pushing for maximum distance from the European Union after Britain leaves. When details of May’s plan appeared last week, they were confident it would be shot down by Gove, Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis. In the end, even though Johnson is reported to have described the plan as a “turd,” all were convinced there was no other workable proposal.

Tackling Critics

The premier, who has bound her Cabinet back into collective responsibility after giving them leeway to challenge her in the past, will show on Monday that she’s willing to tackle her critics’ arguments head on. “Some have suggested that under this arrangement the U.K. would not be able to do trade deals,” she will say. “They are wrong.”

There were signs of the difficulty May will face in winning over some Euroskeptics in her party on Saturday night, when the hardest-line Brexiteers circulated a briefing paper that warned she was condemning them to a “Black Hole Brexit” -- subject to EU rules but unable to influence them.

“There are a lot of questions in here, there is a lot of unhappiness,” Bill Cash, who’s been fighting to get Britain out of the EU for decades, told Sky News. “The question is, how do you leave and is this going to be a proper Brexit? There will be a massive discussion about all this.”

Vote of Confidence

While Cash said that he personally wasn’t yet calling for a vote of confidence in May as Tory leader, there were reports in the Sunday Times and by ITV that other lawmakers are. That’s risky for May, but also for her critics. It takes letters from 48 Conservative lawmakers to trigger a confidence vote in May, but 159 -- half the parliamentary party -- to win.

May’s response to the reports is to focus on speaking to lawmakers, listening to their concerns, and getting her message across, according to a person familiar with her plan. She is betting that most members of Parliament are tired of years of division over the EU and want a position to unite behind.

Nigel Evans, a lawmaker who’s taken hard-line Brexit positions as recently as February, said he could back May’s plan. “I, as a Brexiteer, am happy and content to back the PM,” Evans told reporters after May’s chief of staff briefed lawmakers on the proposals on Saturday.

Not everyone was convinced. Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the European Research Group of Tory lawmakers, said May’s plan was “defeatist” and he’ll oppose it. “If the proposals are as they currently appear, I will vote against them and others may well do the same,” he said in an article for Monday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

There were signs of a positive response from Europe to the plan, which would set up a free-trade area with the EU and mirror EU rules for goods and food.

  • Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Sunday the proposal marked “real progress” and could be part of the solution. While there are still many difficulties, it was “a real success” for May to find a united position, he told reporters in Dublin.
  • The EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier will be encouraged by some member states not to blow the U.K.’s latest blueprint “out of the water,” according to a European official familiar with the negotiations.
  • Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who met Varadkar in Dublin on Sunday, said the U.K. had made an “important, positive” step forward.

“We have an approach which ends free movement, which keeps us out of the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy, which ends the jurisdiction of the European Court,” Gove told the BBC. “We achieve all of the things that we campaigned for in order to ensure that we could leave the EU, but we also do so in a way which respects some of the wishes and some of the concerns of those of my colleagues who voted Remain.”

Some of those pursuing a softer Brexit made clear on Sunday, though, that they’re not satisfied. Richard Reed, an entrepreneur and founder of the juice drink company Innocent Ltd., organized a letter signed by 100 business leaders calling for Britain to stay in a customs union with the EU.

“The cost, complexity and bureaucracy created by crashing out of the customs union and adopting alternative arrangements is the last thing that our businesses need as we seek to grow and employ more people,” the letter said. “It would amount to the British government tying the hands of British business.”

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