Theresa May buck­les up for make-or-break Brexit week

The National - News - - NEWS WORLD - SETH JA­COB­SON

If the past seven days have seen tor­rid twists in the for­tunes of Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May, the next week will prob­a­bly de­ter­mine if her ten­ure is best mea­sured in hours or months.

The Bri­tish leader will spend three days in Brus­sels ne­go­ti­at­ing the coun­try’s deal to leave the EU. Be­fore that, her of­fi­cials will be locked in talks that are ex­pected to run through the night.

Mrs May has a cru­cial Cabi­net meet­ing on Tues­day at which any one of, or pos­si­bly all four, Brexit rebels could walk out in protest.

It must seem like a life­time ago when, on Septem­ber 29, Mrs May awoke to the most pos­i­tive news­pa­per head­lines she had seen since the Con­ser­va­tive leader called an ill-fated gen­eral election in June last year.

Mrs May had just de­liv­ered a speech that was at turns self-dep­re­cat­ing and com­bat­ive at a Con­ser­va­tive party con­fer­ence, and which sug­gested she hoped to stay in of­fice be­yond March 29 next year, when Bri­tain leaves the EU.

She came out swing­ing against her two great­est op­po­nents, Labour leader Jeremy Cor­byn and her for­mer for­eign sec­re­tary Boris John­son, and landed hits on both. She also laid out eco­nomic spend­ing plans that would lead Bri­tain out of its age of aus­ter­ity next year.

But just a week later, Mrs May was back to square one.

The front pages of the news­pa­pers re­vealed how the Demo­cratic Union­ist Party – on which she re­lies for a par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity – was threat­en­ing to bring down her govern­ment if she agreed a deal with the EU that left North­ern Ire­land in the sin­gle mar­ket, the so-called back­stop.

Mr John­son popped up on Twit­ter to de­cry the pro­posal as “mak­ing the UK a per­ma­nent EU colony”.

And fel­low Con­ser­va­tive MP Mark Pritchard threat­en­ingly pointed out that if “a va­cancy for PM did arise, the process need not take more than two work­ing weeks – four days in Com­mons and six days with mem­ber­ship. It does not need to be an overly long process”.

Talk is al­ready turn­ing to the 48 let­ters of no-con­fi­dence Con­ser­va­tive MPs would need to lodge with their party’s hi­er­ar­chy in or­der to trig­ger a lead­er­ship chal­lenge against Mrs May.

“I don’t think there’s a real threat at this point,” wrote James Forsyth, of The Spec­ta­tor magazine. “There is more of a threat that I think Down­ing Street ex­pected right af­ter the con­fer­ence. The govern­ment seems in a proper cri­sis.”

The prime min­is­ter ended last week by brief­ing her Cabi­net in se­lect groups about where the EU ne­go­ti­a­tions were go­ing as far as the UK re­main­ing in the Cus­toms union but not the sin­gle mar­ket, pos­si­bly into 2021 or even 2022.

This po­si­tion is deemed un­ten­able by se­nior pro-Brexit min­is­ters.

Forsyth wrote that when the pro­pos­als were pre­sented to the full Cabi­net on Tues­day,

Mrs May will have to de­cide if she should call the DUP’s bluff on the North­ern Ir­ish back­stop

“the ex­pec­ta­tion in West­min­ster is that there will be one or two res­ig­na­tions over the fur­ther con­ces­sions Mrs May wants to make on the back­stop”.

With the prime min­is­ter set to fly to Brus­sels on Wed­nes­day for three days of cru­cial talks with fel­low EU lead­ers, in­tended to thrash out the North­ern Ire­land sit­u­a­tion, she also faces her weekly Com­mons show­down with Mr Cor­byn at Prime Min­is­ter’s Ques­tions.

The Labour leader has be­gun to en­joy suc­cess in these en­coun­ters in re­cent months. Against a back­drop of min­is­ters quit­ting and po­lit­i­cal chaos, a strong per­for­mance here could send Mrs May off to Bel­gium with even loyal MPs ques­tion­ing her con­tin­ued sur­vival.

And things could yet get even worse for Mrs May as the DUP, whose 10 MPs vote with the govern­ment af­ter an agree­ment reached fol­low­ing the election, has be­gun to flex its mus­cles over the is­sue.

Sammy Wil­son, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman, warned her in the Daily Tele­graph that “if the govern­ment de­cides in the face of EU bel­liger­ence to cut and run and leave part of the UK lan­guish­ing in the sti­fling em­brace of the EU, then that would be to­tally un­ac­cept­able to us and many oth­ers in the House of Com­mons”.

This threat brought anger from some quar­ters of the Con­ser­va­tives, with proRe­main MP Heidi Allen re­mind­ing Mr Wil­son that the DUP had been bought off with £1 bil­lion (Dh4.83bn) of pub­lic spend­ing to achieve the deal be­tween the par­ties.

Mrs May will have to de­cide whether she should call the DUP’s bluff and force through a back­stop deal.

The cal­cu­la­tion in No 10 is that the North­ern Ir­ish party won’t be able to stom­ach the con­cept of a govern­ment that has Mr Cor­byn as its leader, be­cause of the Labour leader’s long-stand­ing links with Ir­ish repub­li­cans.

But the DUP could find the prospect of be­ing split from Bri­tain, from the very “union” en­shrined in their name, too much to ac­cept and vote down Mrs May.

If she thinks she has seen a change in for­tunes over the past week, the com­ing one could prove the most charged of her 27 months in Down­ing Street – and per­haps her last.

AFP

The Bri­tish prime min­is­ter faces a brew­ing chal­lenge from un­happy Leave forces within her Con­ser­va­tive Party

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