Prime Minister Theresa May is vulnerable and isolated as the U.K. comes closer to her self-imposed December deadline to begin trade talks with the E.U. over post-Brexit trade. But without a challenger, she looks set to remain in office for at least two more years.
Chaos in the cabinet
Theresa May has had a bad month, even by the difficult standards of her first year in office. On 1 November, defence secretary Michael Fallon resigned over allegations of sexual harassment. The minister for international development, Priti Patel, resigned days later after admitting to breaching ministerial conduct by attempting to shape foreign policy without government approval when visiting Israel on holiday. Damian Green, May’s first secretary of state and de facto deputy prime minister, is facing an inquiry into possible sexual harassment and ministerial misconduct. Even if he is cleared, he could be pressured into resigning by May’s parliamentary Conservative party.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a former mayor of London, prominent Brexiteer and May’s chief rival for the party leadership after Britain voted to leave the E.U. last June, is lurching from gaffe to gaffe. Most recently, his statement on a British-Iranian woman, claiming that she was ‘teaching journalism’ in Iran when the official position is that she was on holiday, led the Iranian regime to threaten to double her five-year prison sentence.
Despite this disarray, May is unlikely to launch a full cabinet reshuffle. Fallon had been a stable and dependable ally, but Patel occupied a junior ministry and was easily replaced. Johnson is increasingly unpopular within the parliamentary party and the wider membership, but returning him to parliament’s backbenches would crown him leader of disaffected members of the House of Commons, also permitting him the platform of his lucrative newspaper column, which ministerial office forced him to relinquish.
Johnson also appears to be repairing his relationship with Michael Gove, currently the minister for the environment and rural affairs, after Gove withdrew his support for Johnson in the Conservative leadership race in 2016. A leaked letter from the two cabinet ministers urged May to end any transition period, during which the U.K. would continue abiding by E.U. rules in exchange for access to the E.U.’s Single Market, until 30 June 2021. In the letter, they criticised ‘some parts of the government [where] current preparations are not proceeding with anything like sufficient energy’, likely a veiled attack on the chancellor, Philip Hammond, the cabinet’s main voice warning of the risks of Brexit to the U.K. economy, contrary to the bullishness of Gove and Johnson.
The letter reveals the deep divide in May’s cabinet between those who are willing to proceed with a ‘hard Brexit’, which could entail the U.K. leaving the E.U. without a future co-operation deal in place, and those, like Hammond, who support a ‘soft Brexit’ with close ties to the E.U. and potentially a longer transition period.
Rumours are now swirling that 40 Conservative backbenchers are so dissatisfied with May’s leadership that they are willing to sign a letter of no confidence in her. This has not been confirmed by any named sources, and a motion of no confidence would require 48 signatures, but the reports of a rebellion are enough to further degrade the authority of the prime minister.
Conservative lawmakers have consistently called on May to set out her plans for the U.K.’s exit from the E.U. in greater detail, with Remainers in the party demanding that May prevent a ‘cliff-edge’ – in other words, leaving the E.U. without an agreement, which they fear would inflict a profound economic shock. On the other hand, the more optimistic Brexiteers support leaving the E.U. without a deal and falling back onto World Trade Organization rules, rather than prolong the period that the U.K. remains part of the European Union.
Throughout her political career, May has avoided sharing details of new policies with the wider Conservative party, instead preferring to rely on a close circle of advisors. However, after the general election in June 2017, which saw the Conservatives lose their majority, her joint chiefs of staff resigned, leaving her without her closest aides. Conservative legislators backing the Remain campaign have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of May’s opaque tactics.
These same lawmakers, who have been branded ‘mutineers’ by The Telegraph, a national newspaper that supports Brexit, have been lambasted by their pro-Brexit colleagues. However, their open defiance in the House of Commons has attracted significant media attention, highlighting the disarray of the backbenches and the inability of May to control her party.
The Great Repeal Bill
The divide in the Conservative party can be best observed in the debates over the Great Repeal Bill, officially called the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. The legislation, which will repeal the primacy of E.U. law and allow all E.U. law to be transferred into U.K. law, is currently being debated in the House of Commons. This is a process that will last weeks, again revealing major fissures within the ruling party as well as the Labour party, which is also split over Brexit but less visibly so. For the 62-page document, M.P.s have tabled 368 amendments to debate; 13 of those have support from enough Conservative legislators to defeat the government’s policy positions.
Europhile Conservatives are currently trying to secure major concessions from the government on its last-minute amendment to include an exact date for the U.K.’s exit from the European Union. The amendment states that the U.K. will leave on 29 March 2019 at 2300 local time, but opponents argue a promised vote on the exit agreement could simply be too late for politicians to make changes or prevent a hard Brexit.
Despite cross-party criticisms of the set date, the prime minister has refused to climb down on the point, which she personally promised to Brexiteers.
Keeping this promise is increasingly important, as it appears that May will likely offer around GBP40 billion to the E.U. to fulfil outstanding financial commitments in return for commencing trade talks. Though cabinet ministers including Gove and Johnson agreed to an undisclosed sum on 20 November, Brexiteer Tories who urged the prime minister not to pay could vote against it. They cite Germany’s current political disarray as evidence of a weakened E.U., and believe that the U.K. should not offer any concessions while the negotiations are likely to be stalled until a government is formed in Germany.