May Braces for Key Brexit Talks as Johnson Fires New Warning
Prime Minister Theresa May left no doubt she was prepared to be a “bloody difficult woman” in defense of her Brexit plans and intends to reach a “good deal” with the European Union -- one that lawmakers would have a choice to accept or see Britain crash out of the bloc.
“I believe we’ll get a good deal, we’ll bring that back from the EU negotiations and put that to Parliament,” May told the BBC in an interview to be broadcast later Monday. “I think that the alternative to that will be not having a deal.”
May’s verdict is aimed at detractors in her own Conservative Party who might reject her Brexit deal. The problem she faces is that any agreement based on keeping close trading ties to the bloc puts her on a collision course with hard-line Euroskeptics in her Conservative Party -- and could trigger a leadership challenge by Boris Johnson. The former foreign secretary doubled down on his criticism of May in his weekly Telegraph column on Sunday, saying she was leading Britain toward a “spectacular political car crash.”
European leaders gather in Salzburg, Austria on Wednesday to try to unlock talks which have stalled for months over how to prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit. Both sides have tried to “de-dramatize” the issue and are sounding more upbeat that a deal is in reach.
“If Parliament was to say ‘no, go back and get a better one,’ do we really think the European Union is going to give a better deal at that point?” said May.
The premier made it clear she has no intention of wavering, telling the BBC she was “irritated” at the talk of a leadership contest and ready for a fight.
“There’s a difference between those who think you can only be bloody difficult in public, and those who think actually you bide your time, and you’re bloody difficult when the time is right -- and when it really matters,” she said.
The U.K. and EU may still be far apart, but there’s movement -- enough for currency traders to push the pound higher.
EU negotiators are rewriting a key part of the divorce agreement, looking for a solution to avoid a sea border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the U.K.) and mainland Britain. That’s a non-starter for the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which May relies on for a majority in parliament.
The Financial Times reported Sunday that the EU was considering allowing British officials -- rather than the bloc’s inspectors -- to check goods heading to Northern Ireland from mainland Britain, to help “de-dramatize” the border issue. Checks could also be handled away from the border using “trusted-trader schemes,” according to the report.
And according to EU diplomats, British negotiators have hinted they would be ready to make concessions once May has navigated a crucial speech at the Conservative Party annual conference in October.
Amid all the talk of plotting, it was notable that two pro-Brexit heavyweights voiced support for May and her plan on Sunday. Trade Secretary Liam Fox said on Sky News that the prime minister is “doing a great job in difficult circumstances,” and that supporting her “is in our national interest.”
Meanwhile Environment Secretary Michael Gove told the BBC that May’s Brexit proposal was “the right one for now.” He also pointed out that a future prime minister could “alter” Britain’s relationship with the bloc -- a comment apparently aimed at persuading would-be rebels to stand down.
One Brexiteer unlikely to heed Gove’s advice is Johnson. The darling of grassroots Tories has likened May’s Brexit approach to strapping on a suicide vest and handing Brussels the detonator. Though he was reported to have said last week that his focus was on forcing May to ditch her plan, speculation about a leadership challenge isn’t going away.
In his latest column, Johnson focused on Northern Ireland and how the issue was “being used to coerce the U.K. into becoming a vassal state of Brussels.” It’s the same line of attack used by the pro-Brexit Tory European Research Group last week; it also resonates beyond hardline Brexiteers. If the endgame keeps Britain tied to EU rules, what was the point of Brexit in the first place?
The next few weeks look crucial for May and the Brexit talks. The prime minister addresses her party conference on Oct. 3; navigate that, and an EU summit later that month beckons. Both sides could be in a position to confirm a Brexit agreement at a specially convened meeting in November.
It’s unlikely to be as straightforward as that. Though it’s not clear whether the Tory rebels have the numbers to oust May, the risk is that they try anyway, throwing the party into chaos with the clock ticking down toward Britain’s departure from the EU in March.
That would be music to the ears of the main opposition Labour Party, which has faced its own turmoil over how to balance competing views of Brexit. Ahead of its annual conference next week, pressure has been building on leader Jeremy Corbyn to come off the fence in support of a second Brexit referendum. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said as much on Sunday.
Labour’s official position is that while it hasn’t taken a fresh vote off the table, its preference is to win a general election so it can enter its own negotiations with Brussels. With May lacking a parliamentary majority and Brexiteers in open rebellion, Labour could have huge a say in what happens next. Signs are growing the party has no intention of bailing the prime minister out.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.