Theresa May Is on the Brink as Tories Plot to Kill Her Brexit Deal
Prime Minister Theresa May is fighting for her political life as a growing revolt from within her own party threatens to derail her Brexit plans and force the U.K. out of the European Union with no deal.
At least two senior ministers are said to be considering whether to quit, while scores of Conservative members of Parliament are lining up to vote against the accord that her cabinet grudgingly agreed to. There are even reports that a coordinated plot to oust May as U.K. leader is gathering pace.
On Thursday, European Council President Donald Tusk called a summit for leaders to sign off the agreement on Nov. 25 -- as long as nothing goes wrong before then. The pound was unchanged, as investors await more certainty.
While business and finance leaders are pleased that May has finally secured an agreement that gives a bit of clarity, their relief could be short-lived. The prime minister’s own team believe that the next few days will be the most perilous she’s encountered since becoming prime minister in the aftermath of the referendum vote to leave the EU in 2016.
In the two years since, she’s battled her party and the bloc’s 27 other countries to reach a fragile agreement on the terms of Brexit. On Wednesday, it was time for May finally to push her divided cabinet to sign up to the 585-page divorce deal. Next she must persuade a rebellious Parliament to follow suit and back her plan.
Her situation worsened early on Thursday, when junior Northern Ireland minister Shailesh Vara quit in protest. He said her proposed deal will leave the U.K. “in a half-way house” locked inside the EU’s trade regime with no end date in sight.
“We are a proud nation and it is a sad day when we are reduced to obeying the rules made by other countries who have shown that they do not have our best interests at heart,” Vara said in his resignation letter to May.
He’s a junior minister so the departure isn’t a major blow for May. But with every minister who quits, the chances of May getting the deal through Parliament look slimmer. The opposition Labour Party has also declared it will vote against it.
May is trying to convince lawmakers to push it through in the national interest. If they don’t, they risk crashing the U.K. out of the bloc without a deal, or torpedoing Brexit altogether, she said.
“The choice before us is clear,” May told reporters after a stormy cabinet meeting broke up after five hours. “This deal which delivers on the vote of the referendum, which brings back control of our money, laws and borders; ends free movement; protects jobs, security and our union -- or leave with no deal, or no Brexit at all.”
May emerged from the session late Wednesday to deliver her sober assessment, after a fraught meeting with her senior team.
One Key Issue
Several people with knowledge of the matter said two cabinet ministers were reduced to tears during the meeting, which dragged on past its expected three-hour duration. Pensions Secretary Esther McVey is said to have demanded a formal vote among cabinet ministers on whether to accept or reject the plan. She was overruled by May’s officials and the government’s chief whip, and remained angry at the outcome, people familiar with the matter said.
McVey, and fellow cabinet ministers including Andrea Leadsom and Penny Mordaunt, have been weighing up whether they can stay in May’s government to see through the proposed terms of Brexit. Several people with knowledge of the matter believe it is still possible that at least one of them will quit in the days ahead.
One key issue has set these pro-Brexit ministers at odds with May: the plan for avoiding customs checks at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
May’s critics say this will keep the country in a potentially open-ended customs union with the EU. That’s unacceptable to Tory euroskeptics, who want the country to be free from EU rules so it can strike trade deals around the world.
Under the terms of the deal, the U.K. will enjoy a 21-month transition phase after Brexit takes place next March. During this period nothing will change, and businesses can carry on operating as now. To the dismay of pro-Brexit Tories, May’s deal contains the option of extending this transition period -- with no currently agreed end date to that extension. This, too, is designed to help avoid the need for customs checks at the Irish border.
Bigger Risk to Come
Even if, as May’s team say, the backstop isn’t required, the outline agreement for the future trade relationship between the U.K. and the EU still suggests that deep ties will continue, keeping the country too close for many Tories’ comfort to the bloc’s single market and customs union.
While May could probably survive the loss of a few more ministers, she knows the bigger risk is still to come. She faces an onslaught from rank and file, euroskeptic Tories in Parliament after their leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said he couldn’t support her deal and urged his colleagues to reject it.
Some of Rees-Mogg’s allies are also said to be ready to send in formal letters demanding a vote of no confidence in May as their party leader, and prime minister, according to the BBC. Rees-Mogg said in an ITV interview late Wednesday that he hasn’t yet submitted a letter and that until now he’s disagreed with the policy rather than with May herself.
“There comes a point at which the individual and the policy are so inextricably interlinked that that argument ceases to have any validity,” according to Rees-Mogg. “We are coming very close to that point,” he said, adding: "Let’s see what the prime minister says in her statement tomorrow."
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.