Saturday 19 August 2017

Weakened Theresa May is forced to tone down Brexit rhetoric

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Lords yesterday. Picture: PA
Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Lords yesterday. Picture: PA

William James

British Prime Minister Theresa May promised to listen more closely to business concerns about Britain leaving the European Union as she set out a Brexit-focused government programme, pared back to reflect her weakened authority.

Chastened by an election which left her Conservative Party short of a majority in parliament and reopened debate on the nature of Britain's EU exit, Mrs May also sidelined reform on social care, education and corporate governance.

Her two-year programme, known as the Queen's Speech and prepared by ministers, was read out by Queen Elizabeth at parliament's opening ceremony. She has yet to secure a deal with Northern Ireland's DUP party to prop up her government.

The queen told lawmakers from both the upper and lower houses of parliament that the government is committed to building "the widest possible consensus" on Brexit, working with parliament, devolved administrations, business and others.

"My government's priority is to secure the best possible deal as the country leaves the European Union," the queen said.

The traditionally ceremonial address, usually dominated by pageantry, was a crucial testing ground for Mrs May's ability to run the country during its most challenging period for generations.

Her authority has been badly damaged just as Britain begins Brexit negotiations. Four militant attacks have raised questions about her grip on national security, and the death of at least 79 people in a tower block fire has become a flashpoint for public anger at her party's record in government.

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The shift to a more consultative tack drew a cautious welcome from business groups, which worry that Mrs May's plan focuses more on controlling immigration than protecting the economy. Her new approach will be tested almost immediately, when she travels to Brussels for a summit of EU leaders.

Lawmakers will have to approve the speech in a vote, expected on June 29, that will be a de facto vote of confidence. Mrs May is under increasing pressure to do a deal with the DUP to support her government after nearly two weeks of talks.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, whose surprisingly strong election performance damaged Mrs May, called the speech "thin gruel". He said the government was ignoring the need for important domestic reforms to promote social justice.

The queen was accompanied by Prince Charles after her 96-year-old husband, Philip, was taken to hospital with an infection.

As London sweltered in unseasonably hot weather, about 250 protesters gathered outside parliament after the speech, blaming the deadly fire in west London on years of Conservative cuts and demanding the fall of Mrs May's government.

The legislative programme spelt out a Brexit-dominated set of policies and indicated Mrs May was keen to secure broad support for leaving the EU - a change in tone from the strident approach she set out before the June 8 election.

However, the speech was likely to be defined in Britain by what it did not contain, with key election promises to introduce a so-called "dementia tax", to bring in means-testing of winter fuel payments and to scrap the state pension triple lock all abandoned.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump's state visit to the UK appears to have been shelved for at least two years after it was left out of the Queen's Speech.

The address contained only a reference to welcoming King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain in July.

It follows reports that the US president told the prime minister he will not come if there are large-scale protests against him. Downing Street has been forced to clarify that the invitation still stands, despite the fact that no date has been set for a visit.

Irish Independent

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