Under threat May holds Brexit crisis talks
LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May held crisis talks Sunday with Conservative colleagues as she tries to plot a path through a pivotal week in the Brexit process amid reports her leadership is under imminent threat.
Ensconced at her country residence Chequers, the embattled premier must decide when, or even if, to ask British MPs to vote again on her unpopular EU divorce deal which they have already overwhelmingly rejected twice.
She is also confronted with the prospect of lawmakers seizing control of House of Commons procedures in order to hold a series of so-called “indicative votes” to reveal what support exists for other options.
It follows May securing at a European Union summit this week a delay to Britain’s scheduled March 29 departure for at least three weeks to get her agreement approved or find a viable alternative.
“The prime minister is speaking to her colleagues this weekend,” a Downing Street spokeswoman said Sunday, declining to confirm reports she would hold an afternoon summit with leading Brexiteer MPs outside government.
After a particularly chaotic week even for May’s crisis-plagued tenure — during which she made an ill-judged attack on MPs’ intransigence on her plan — speculation is rife that Conservatives are preparing to force her to resign.
The Sunday Times reported she was “at the mercy of a full-blown cabinet coup”, with plans afoot for her de facto deputy David Lidington to take over in a caretaker capacity.
The newspaper said it had spoken to 11 senior ministers who “confirmed that they wanted the prime minister to make way for someone else” and planned to confront her at a cabinet meeting on Monday.
The Mail on Sunday said May could be ousted “within days” and Environment Secretary Michael Gove, a prominent Brexiteer, could take over as interim leader.
Finance Minister Philip Hammond on Sunday criticised the plotters, arguing it would be “self-indulgent” to try to switch leader.
“Changing the players doesn’t solve the problem,” he told Sky News. “We’ve got to resolve this issue.”
Britain’s parliament, and cabinet, has been deadlocked for months over Brexit, with lawmakers unable to decide how to implement the 2016 referendum vote to leave, reflecting bitter divisions nationwide.
On Saturday, organisers estimated one million pro-Europeans marched through central London demanding another public vote on leaving the bloc.
Following the agreement with the EU to postpone Brexit — which MPs must still vote into British law next week — the path forward still remains highly uncertain.
If May’s deal finally wins MPs’ backing Britain will leave the EU on May 22 under the terms she struck with the bloc last year.
If it is not passed in the coming weeks London must outline a new plan or face a no-deal Brexit as early as April 12.
A request then for another, likely lengthy, extension would require holding European Parliament elections in May.
The prime minister and Brexiteers have decried the prospect, saying it would be unfair to the narrow majority of Britons who voted to leave the bloc in 2016.
May has told MPs she will only bring back her deal for another vote if there are signs of “sufficient support”.
But with her parliamentary allies the Democratic Unionist Party indicating Friday that they remain opposed to her plan, that appears unlikely.
“It’s looking very difficult to bring together a majority for it,” Hammond conceded to the BBC.
However, “one way or another parliament is going to have the opportunity this week to decide what it is in favour of,” he added.
MPs will resume debate on Brexit on Monday and have the chance to vote on an amendment tabled by a cross-party group of senior lawmakers scheduling “indicative votes” two days later.
A similar move earlier this month failed by just two votes.
If passed, lawmakers will be able to vote on a range of options, from stopping Brexit altogether or holding a second referendum to remaining in a customs union with the EU or its single market.
MPs could then try to turn their non-binding votes into enforceable law.
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay warned Sunday such a move could spark a constitutional crisis and that “the risk of a general election increases” under such a scenario.
“There is a constitutional collision if parliament is instructing a government to do something that is fundamentally against what it has been elected to do,” he told the BBC.