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WORLD | 17-11-2018 09:44

British PM faces leadership challenge over Brexit

Theresa May wins support for her beleaguered Brexit deal from key politicians and business groups, but she remains besieged by opponents inside her own party, who are determined to oust her.

British Prime Minister Theresa May received the vital backing of the last remaining pro-Brexit heavyweights in her Cabinet yesterday as she battled to salvage her EU divorce deal – and her job. After a tumultuous Thursday in which four ministers resigned, MPs slammed her draft agreement and members of her own Conservative Party plotted to oust her, May received key support from the top Brexiteers left in her government.

All eyes were on Environment Secretary Michael Gove, a Vote Leave figurehead in Britain’s 2016 EU membership referendum, who had stayed ominously silent as his colleagues quit around him. But, asked Friday if he had confidence in May, he said: “I absolutely do. It’s absolutely vital that we focus on getting the right deal in the future.”

Many media outlets reported that Gove had earlier rejected an offer to replace Dominic Raab, whose decision Thursday to quit as Brexit minister over the EU deal sparked fears the government could collapse. Raab was replaced yesterday by Stephen Barclay, a previously little-known junior health minister and former insurance lawyer who supported Brexit in the referendum.

In an article last year, the Financial Times said Barclay was “a key interlocutor in crucial Brexit planning” and had impressed in financial circles. Eurosceptics in May’s Conservative Party meanwhile plotted to unseat her by tabling letters of no confidence in her leadership.

But International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, another leading Brexit supporter, backed her and her deal. “A deal is better than no deal – businesses do require certainty,” he said. “What we need now is stability.”

Seeking to win over the public, May made a rare outing on a radio phone-in. “I truly believe this is the best deal for Britain,” May said of the proposed EU withdrawal agreement. She added that she was “very sorry” that ministers including Raab had quit. She also faced comparisons with prime minister Neville Chamberlain and his 1938 appeasement of Nazi Germany’s dictator Adolf Hitler.

“We are not going to be locked in forever to something that we don’t want,” May insisted. Brexiteer MPs fear the deal would keep Britain shackled to Brussels long after Brexit on March 29, 2019. EU supporters say it would leave the UK on worse terms than it has inside the bloc and are calling for a second Brexit referendum to break the logjam.

Later yesterday, May brought an anti-Brexit former minister back into her government. Amber Rudd, who quit as home secretary in a scandal over immigration earlier this year, replaces Esther McVey, who quit as work and pensions minister over May’s Brexit plan on Thursday.


Despite the support from Gove and Fox, May could yet face a vote of no confidence from her own MPs. At least 48 Conservative MPs (15 percent of the Conservative parliamentary group) are required to submit letters of no confidence in the party leader to trigger a vote, and 22 have publicly confirmed they had done so. They must submit letters to the MP who chairs the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, lawmakers who hold no ministerial office. Conservative MPs would decide the prime minister’s fate by secret ballot. If she won – a minimum of half the votes plus one – she could not be challenged again for a year. But if she lost, a leadership contest follows in which she cannot stand.

May’s Conservatives have no majority in Parliament’s lower House of Commons, but govern through an agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). However, DUP lawmakers were among MPs from all sides who lined up in the chamber on Thursday to warn they could not support her Brexit deal.

The pound slumped Thursday amid fears the turmoil at Westminster could result in Britain leaving the EU with no deal, but rebounded yesterday.

The 585-page draft deal aims to ensure a smooth divorce from the EU after more than four decades of membership and outlines a transition period for both sides. Key provisions seek to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, protect citizens’ rights and settle Britain’s outstanding payments to the bloc. EU member states have until Tuesday to examine the deal and to agree the wording of a parallel political statement setting out goals for the bloc’s future relations with London. A special EU summit to seal the hard-fought Brexit agreement is scheduled for November 25.


The United Nations has accused the British government of being in a “state of denial” about a growing rich-poor divide that has widened in the wake of a decade of austerity measures. UN poverty and human rights rapporteur Philip Alston’s 12-day fact-finding mission to Britain uncovered a “dramatic decline in the fortunes of the least well off.” His report said child poverty rates in Britain could be as high as 40 percent and thatone in five Britons was living below the poverty line as defined by the British government – and that 90 percent of single poor parents were women.

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