UK PM Theresa May Faces Day of Reckoning Over Brexit

November 19, 2018 Updated: November 19, 2018

LONDON—British Prime Minister Theresa May will seek to win support from business leaders for her contentious draft European Union divorce deal on Monday as dissenting lawmakers in her own party try to trigger a leadership challenge.

May has had a tumultuous few days since unveiling her deal on Wednesday, Nov. 14, with several ministers, including her Brexit minister, resigning.

She has vowed to fight on, warning on Sunday, Nov. 18 that toppling her risked delaying Britain’s exit from the EU. She has said a separate “future partnership agreement”, not yet finalised, will help ensure the government delivers on the 2016 Brexit referendum.

The EU is due to hold a summit to discuss the deal on Nov. 25. Some Brexit-supporting ministers are reported to want to rewrite parts of it, though Germany has ruled this out.

May will defend her deal in a speech to the CBI business lobby group on Monday, saying Britain will this week thrash out the details of its outline future relationship with the EU.

“We now have an intense week of negotiations ahead of us,” she will say, according to advance extracts.

“During that time I expect us to hammer out the full and final details of the framework that will underpin our future relationship, and I am confident that we can strike a deal at the Council that I can take back to the House of Commons.”

Economic ‘Wrecking Ball’

More than two years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, it is still unclear how, on what terms or even if it will leave as planned on March 29, 2019.

CBI president John Allan said a ‘no deal’ Brexit would be a “wrecking ball” for Britain’s economy.

May will say the withdrawal agreement set out last week, strongly criticized by lawmakers on both sides of the EU debate, is a good deal for Britain.

However, rebels in her own Conservative Party who say the deal will leave Britain in indefinite subjugation to the EU are attempting to trigger a vote of no confidence in her leadership.

The chairman of the party’s “1922 Committee”, Graham Brady, said on Sunday that the threshold of 48 letters from lawmakers had not yet been reached. He also said if there were a vote, May would win.

The Sun newspaper said the rebels were six letters short.

A pro-Brexit campaigner holds a placard as a tourist bus passes by
A pro-Brexit campaigner holds a placard as a tourist bus passes by in Westminster, London, on Nov. 16, 2018. (Reuters/Peter Nicholls)

One of them, Simon Clarke, told BBC radio, “This day must be the point at which … action is taken”.

Critics like Clarke say May’s deal risks dividing the United Kingdom by aligning Northern Ireland more closely with the EU’s customs rules than mainland Britain.

The DUP, a small Northern Irish party that props up May’s minority government, has threatened to pull its support over that issue.

Clarke referred to this threat, saying, “It is quite clear to me that the captain is driving the ship at the rocks.”

Business minister Greg Clark said London would be open to extending a transition period between Britain leaving the bloc and the start of a new trading relationship until 2022 as one means of preventing such an arrangement coming into force.

“It would be our discretion, it would be purely for us if we wanted to, and there are reasons we may not want to take that up,” he told BBC radio.

Controlling Immigration

During the transition period, Britain will remain an EU member in all but name—and voting rights—meaning that such an extension would be likely to dismay Brexit supporters.

Also speaking at the CBI conference, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will describe the deal as “a botched, worst-of-all-worlds deal which is bad for Britain, leaving the country in an indefinite halfway house without a real say”.

Corbyn, who has said his party will not support May’s deal when parliament is asked to vote on it, will say Labour’s plan for Brexit would include a new, comprehensive, and permanent customs union, and a “strong single market relationship”.

“The government is trying to force a bad deal that doesn’t meet our country’s needs by threatening us all with the chaos and serious damage to our economy of a no deal outcome,” he will say.

May will tell the business leaders that the deal will allow Britain to control immigration—a key concern for many of those who voted to leave the EU—but still allow companies to attract “the brightest and the best from around the world”.

“It will no longer be the case that EU nationals, regardless of the skills or experience they have to offer, can jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi,” she will say.

By Kylie MacLellan and William James