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2017 looks to be a gauntlet for British Prime Minister Theresa May

Passengers pass through turnstiles at Waterloo Underground Station in central London on Sunday. The walkout on the Tube is part of a wave of strikes hitting British rail and air passengers at the start of 2017.


The new year is off to a rough start for British Prime Minister Theresa May. Strikes are looming, her Brexit plans are under fire and she only has a few weeks left to figure out how Britain will leave the European Union.

Ms. May spent much of Sunday fending off criticism of her Brexit strategy from a former Canadian trade negotiator and Britain's outgoing ambassador to the European Union, Sir Ivan Rogers. Sir Ivan resigned his post last week and issued a scathing attack on the government for its "muddled thinking" and "ill-founded arguments" on Brexit.

His comments were backed up in an article published on Sunday in the Observer newspaper by Jason Langrish, a Canadian trade expert who has been involved in negotiating the Canada-EU trade deal, known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA. "The British government continues to plod along without a Brexit strategy with the deadline for invoking article 50 fast approaching," Mr. Langrish wrote.

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Mr. Langrish also supported an assertion by Mr. Rogers that it could take 10 years for Britain to negotiate a trade deal with the EU, citing the length of time CETA has taken. "Rogers's warning to Downing Street, outlining that the EU expects a full U.K. trade deal to take until the early to mid-2020s, seems realistic. Undoing nearly 45 years of integration and shared law will not be pleasant and represents a clear step backwards," he wrote.

Ms. May has insisted for months that she intends to trigger the EU exit mechanism, known as Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, before the end of March and that a deal with Europe will be in place within two years. There has been growing concern that the timetable is far too short and there have been calls for Britain to keep access to the single market, even if that means giving up some control over immigration.

"Our thinking on this isn't muddled at all," Ms. May told Sky News on Sunday. "What I am talking about is getting the right relationship for the U.K. with the EU. We mustn't think about this as somehow we are coming out of membership but we want to keep bits of membership," she said.

She added that, "What I am saying is that I think it is wrong to look at this as just a binary issue, as to either you have control of immigration or you have a good trade deal – I don't see it as a binary issue." Ms. May has said that she will outline more details of her Brexit strategy in a speech later this month.

She'll also have to come up with a strategy to deal with a Supreme Court decision this month which is expected to rule that the Prime Minister cannot pull Britain out of the EU without approval from Parliament, meaning members of Parliament will have the power to disrupt Ms. May's plans. Ms. May's government has a slim majority and most MPs opposed Brexit, including about half of the Conservative caucus. While it's unlikely that Parliament would vote against triggering Article 50, many MPs have said they want the government to maintain access to the single market.

If Brexit wasn't enough of a headache for Ms. May, the government is also bracing for a wave of strikes this week at the London Underground, the Southern Rail commuter service and a division of British Airways.

Most of the Underground will be closed Monday because of a 24-hour walkout by union staff over job cuts related to the ongoing closure of ticket booths, a process started by former mayor Boris Johnson who is now Foreign Secretary and one of Ms. May's key cabinet ministers. The strike will impact nearly four million commuters and it came despite a last-minute plea from London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a former Labour MP who was elected last spring and has pointed the finger at Mr. Johnson for the problems.

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"This strike is going to be a huge inconvenience to commuters, tourists and [Underground] staff. And it is pointless," Mr. Khan said Sunday. Union officials have blamed the London Underground, saying it hasn't come up with any serious alternatives to the closures.

Meanwhile, Southern Rail, which carries about 300,000 passengers a day into London from surrounding communities, will shut down on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday because of a strike that is part of an ongoing labour dispute over changes to the role of conductors.

The dispute has gone on for months, with intermittent strikes and cuts to services. It is the worst industrial action on the railways since the network was privatized in the mid-1990s and Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is facing growing pressure to end the strike. Some people who rely on Southern Rail have lost their jobs because of the disruption while others have sold their homes. One group of passengers has banded together to launch a lawsuit against the company and others have called for the government to renationalize the rail network.

A 48-hour strike is also set begin on Tuesday by 2,500 British Airways' cabin crew who work out of London's Heathrow Airport. The crew and the airline have been embroiled in a dispute over pay for several weeks. British Airways has said that it will accommodate travellers who have booked tickets on flights affected by the strike.

More strikes could be coming. Royal Mail workers have threatened to strike and the rail unions have vowed to take their fight over conductors to other railway operators across the country.

Ms. May has one more challenge coming up; how to deal with incoming U.S. president-elect Donald Trump. The two are expected to meet in the next few weeks and on Sunday Ms. May was asked about comments Mr. Trump made during the U.S. election campaign about groping women.

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Ms. May called the remarks "unacceptable" and noted that Mr. Trump had apologized. "But the relationship that the U.K. has with the United States is about something much bigger than just the relationship between the two individuals as president and prime minister," she said adding that she has had two "very good, positive" phone calls with the president-elect.

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More


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