British Prime Minister Theresa May has survived a threat to her leadership and plans to press ahead with her Brexit strategy despite growing opposition and a tricky upcoming meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Ms. May looked to be on shaky ground on Monday after three pro-Brexit cabinet ministers resigned, including leadership rival Boris Johnson, and several Conservative members of Parliament called on her to step down. The departing ministers quit in protest over what they see as Ms. May’s growing softness on Brexit and her latest proposal, which includes a customs arrangement with the European Union. The “dream” of Brexit was “dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt,” Mr. Johnson said in his resignation letter.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump waded into the controversy as well by praising Mr. Johnson while noting the “turmoil” in Britain. Mr. Trump has been an outspoken supporter of Brexit and he is set to meet Ms. May in London later this week. “Boris Johnson is a friend of mine, he’s been very, very nice to me, very supportive,” Mr. Trump told reporters in Washington. “And I maybe will speak to him when I get over there.”
Ms. May has moved quickly to try and re-establish her authority. She replaced Mr. Johnson and the other former cabinet ministers within hours and publicly challenged their reasons for resigning. She also won the backing of several other pro-Brexit cabinet ministers on Tuesday and fended off a Tory MP rebellion by warning them that sacking her could prompt an election which the Tories might lose.
Tony Travers, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, said Ms. May has backed the hardline Brexit MPs into a corner. The group has been pushing Ms. May for months to take a tough approach with the EU and cut all ties when the country leaves the bloc next March. Most other Tory MPs, and several business groups, have urged more caution and advocated maintaining economic links with the EU, including remaining in the customs union, which provides for the tariff-free movement of goods among member states. Last Friday, Ms. May opted for the latter approach and proposed an arrangement that would keep Britain largely within the customs union. That infuriated many hard-Brexit MPs and led to the cabinet resignations, but Mr. Travers said the pro-Brexit group has few options.
“The big test for them is if they are as affronted as they say they are, will they dare trigger a vote of confidence in her leadership? The risk of that is, she’d win,” Mr. Travers said.
The other option is for the pro-Brexit MPs to bring down the government and trigger an election, which they could do since the Conservatives don’t have a majority in the House of Commons. But the party is trailing the opposition Labour Party in recent opinion polls and Labour is even less likely to push for a hard Brexit. “If there’s one thing that binds Conservative MPs together, it is a fear of [Labour Leader] Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister,” Mr. Travers said.
However, Ms. May’s troubles are far from over. Her new Brexit policy will be outlined more fully on Thursday, but it has run into opposition from Labour MPs who have called it unworkable. “I don’t think it can win a majority in Parliament,” Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said Tuesday.
There were also indications that pro-Brexit Tories led by Mr. Johnson will be pushing hard for Ms. May to scrap the plan. And critics have noted that Ms. May’s customs arrangement only deals with the movement of goods and not services, which accounts for 80 per cent of the British economy. That includes financial services, which will be significantly affected by Brexit if London’s financial institutions lose unfettered access to the EU. Ms. May has only said that a deal on services will be worked out later.
The EU’s top negotiator, Michel Barnier, has also been cool to Ms. May’s proposals. In a speech in New York on Tuesday, Mr. Barnier noted that the EU and Britain have worked out 80 per cent of a Brexit deal that will govern relations going forward. The EU wants to have the full agreement done by October to give member states enough time to ratify it before Britain leaves the bloc on March 29, 2019. The departure date can only be extended with unanimous consent.
The EU and Britain resume negotiations next week and Mr. Barnier raised doubts about Ms. May’s plan. “We will protect [the EU’s] single market, which is based on the indivisibility of what we call the four freedoms – of people, goods, services and capital,” Mr. Barnier told a conference in New York on Tuesday. “This ecosystem for rules, norms, standards for goods and services” is the “foundation of the European Union.”