U.K. Cabinet at War Over Theresa May’s Brexit Plan
(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is facing another bruising showdown with her own Conservative Party over her Brexit plans Wednesday, after an angry meeting of her cabinet descended into open conflict.
At a gathering of her parliamentary colleagues on Wednesday, May will be challenged to justify her plan to keep Britain tied to European trade rules for longer, amid speculation that dismay at her leadership is on the point of boiling over into an attempt to oust her.
It comes after seven senior pro-Brexit ministers spoke out during Tuesday’s cabinet meeting against a proposal to allow the U.K. to stay inside the European Union’s tariff regime indefinitely, according to people familiar with the matter.
May lurching from crisis to crisis has been the defining narrative of her time in office. What’s changed is that the prime minister does seem to have reached the point where as the end of Brexit nears, it’s increasingly apparent her biggest struggle is at home rather than in Brussels.
“May is in her most perilous position to date domestically,” said Eurasia Group Managing Director Mujtaba Rahman. There is “intense speculation that euroskeptic MPs will soon force a vote of confidence in her as Tory leader.”
The infighting in the British government escalated at a critical time in the Brexit process, with time running out and talks still stuck on the thorny question of how to avoid customs border checks at the land frontier between Ireland and the U.K.
A summit of EU leaders broke up last week with no agreement and plans for a special gathering to sign off on the terms of the divorce next month have been shelved. On the EU’s part, preparations are being stepped up to cushion the impact of a chaotic split in case negotiations fall apart, according to people familiar with the issue.
Tuesday’s weekly Cabinet meeting in May’s Downing Street offices was described as punchy, impassioned and containing fireworks by several people familiar with the discussions, who asked not to be named discussing private conversations.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is said to have led the assault on May’s plan, with support from Home Secretary Sajid Javid, and fellow cabinet ministers Penny Mordaunt, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom, Geoffrey Cox and Liz Truss.
The group demanded a fixed end-date to the so-called backstop guarantee to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, or at least some kind of mechanism for the U.K. unilaterally to escape the arrangement if necessary.
For these ministers, the idea that Britain should be tied into the EU customs regime potentially forever is a betrayal of the vote to leave the bloc and would be a loss of national autonomy. They argued that a backstop without any meaningful limits would not pass through Parliament, a view reinforced by May’s chief whip, Julian Smith.
But four other cabinet ministers -- including Education Secretary Damian Hinds and May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington -- hit back on the other side of the argument. They said the EU will never agree to a time limit on the Irish border backstop and the government should not be imposing unrealistic red lines on the negotiations that will destroy the chances of getting a deal.
According to the Financial Times, some ministers also reacted in disbelief when they were told that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the government plans to charter commercial ships to bring in emergency medicines and food.
The cabinet argument ran on so long that Gove, the environment secretary, missed a speech he had been due to deliver to British and Irish parliamentarians across the road. In his absence, the audience occupied themselves with a polite discussion of moments of unity in the two countries’ history.
Past Tuesday’s contentious cabinet meeting, May on Wednesday can expect fresh confrontations at a gathering of the 1922 Committee of rank-and-file Tory members of Parliament, who will raise new challenges to her strategy. Many of them were angry last week after she floated the idea of keeping the U.K. bound to EU trade terms for longer than previously planned.
May survived a revolt on Monday when some of her strongest Brexit critics backed down. There are also conflicting reports of whether a plot to oust her will have enough support to succeed. But European leaders watching developments in London are concerned May won’t be able to get a deal agreed.
EU nations now see the prospects of a special Brexit summit being called next month to seal the divorce terms as highly unlikely. The bloc is stepping up preparations for a potential cliff-edge withdrawal, people familiar with the discussions said.
Even if there’s progress in negotiations with the U.K. over the coming weeks, the EU’s 27 remaining governments see few chances of holding a leaders’ meeting in November, two officials said. The officials asked not to be named, as the information isn’t in line with the bloc’s official position that it stands ready to convene a special Summit when talks have advanced and a deal is within reach.
EU Council President Donald Tusk told lawmakers in Strasbourg Wednesday a summit will be convened when “decisive progress has been made.” He also said European leaders would be open to a longer Brexit transition period “if the U.K. decided that such an extension would be helpful to reach a deal.”
Lawmakers will probably narrowly pass May’s Brexit deal, the U.K.’s ambassador to the U.S. said on Tuesday, casting an agreement on the divorce terms as better than other outcomes.
“I am relatively confident about getting the deal with our European partners. I would accept that it looks quite a tight vote in the House of Commons, when you bring that agreement to the House of Commons,” envoy Kim Darroch said during a panel discussion on Brexit in Washington. “My money is on -- despite all the predictions at the moment -- getting the deal through the House of Commons.”
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