Tuesday 17 October 2017

Theresa May faces tough questions on Brexit at crunch meeting

Prime Minister seeks to shore up extremely vulnerable position with reshuffle confirming most key figures in their existing jobs

Tory leader Theresa May. Picture: PA
Tory leader Theresa May. Picture: PA

Joe Watts, Rob Merrick

Theresa May faces a crunch meeting on Monday with Conservative MPs whose support she desperately needs to avoid the imminent collapse of her premiership.

Tories furious at the election fiasco will demand changes to her leadership style and concessions on key policy areas, including Brexit.

In a sign of the impossible task ahead, the weakened leader must appease both those who believe voters have rejected a hard Brexit, and others demanding she plough on with a tough approach.

Ms May appears to have avoided an immediate coup, with Boris Johnson telling unsettled MPs to “calm down”, but Conservatives from all wings of the party are still openly speculating that the Prime Minister’s days are numbered. The former chancellor George Osborne yesterday branded her a “dead woman walking”.

The Prime Minister sought to shore up her extremely vulnerable position with a reshuffle that confirmed most key figures in their existing jobs, although there were a couple of unexpected moves that saw the return of Brexiteer Michael Gove as Environment Secretary, well as key promotions for Tories who backed remaining in the EU – including Damian Green, who was made First Secretary of State.

Her survival also depends on the Northern Irish DUP committing to a deal to prop up the Government in the Commons, with the party’s leader now due in Downing Street on Tuesday for talks.

The chairman of the influential Tory backbench 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, confirmed Ms May would be attending a meeting of the group on Monday, brought forward a day to address the the party’s crisis.

He insisted there was no immediate leadership challenge which could plunge them into another general election, but acknowledged policies set out in the Tory manifesto would have to be abandoned.

The Monday afternoon meeting is likely to see Ms May face further demands to transform the way she operates, similar to the ones already made by senior ministers.

One Brexit-backing MP Andrew Bridgen said: “We owe it to the country to really get behind the PM and deliver stability, but she knows what she has to do. She needs to be strong and stable, but contrite – about the way the campaign went and what’s got to change.

“There needs to be a much more extensive group of people around Number 10 to hold the party together.

Main candidates to replace Theresa May 'would all hurt Tories'

“But she also needs to commit to a clean Brexit, that was in our and Labour’s manifesto, and she must not bow to Remainers who are trying to tie everything they want to the election result.”

Others like Philip Hammond saw things differently, with the Chancellor reported to have told Ms May she must put “jobs first” in negotiating a new deal with Brussels, a veiled swipe at her focus on immigration.

A senior Tory MP said: “If we fail to deliver stable government now, there’s a serious risk Jeremy Corbyn could be elected with a majority. So the key thing is not doing anything that would mean him ending up in Downing Street now.

“But beyond that, Brexit and it’s economic consequences are still massively de-stabilising. It needs to be dealt with swiftly, but in a way that recognises where we are at the moment.”

Another ex-Tory minister explained: “Her Brexit strategy has been completely blown out of the water.

“Some people don’t understand that. The penny hasn’t dropped. Maybe it will drop when she speaks at the '22.”

Ex-business minister Anna Soubry told The Independent: “She’s got to be more inclusive, yes with the party, but in the cabinet too.

“The Chancellor and the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, have got to be at the front. They have got to be at the heart and soul of the Brexit deal.

“At the same time she has to stop the rhetoric of hard Brexit, and all of the ‘no deal, better than a bad deal’. The British people have rejected that, and she needs to reflect it.“

Stating that “nothing should be off the table”, she indicated that she wanted a different approach to the single market and immigration.

“She moved off the centre ground and she lost,” said Ms Soubry.

“I want to see her move back towards it and that would mean it’s necessary to work with the sensible people in the Labour party to reach a consensus on Brexit and what getting a good deal means.”

But another former Tory minister told The Independent: “Can a leopard change its spots? She is at the mercy of events, principally how the EU negotiations go.”

While the threat of the coup appears to have momentarily receded, senior Conservatives warned she will never lead the party into another election after last week's humiliation at the ballot box.

Mr Osborne, sacked by Ms May when she became Prime Minister, said it was clear her days in Downing Street were numbered after seeing her Commons majority wiped out in the election she had so confidently called.

The ex-chancellor, who now edits the London Evening Standard, said: “Theresa May is a dead woman walking. It is just how long she is going to remain on death row.

“I think we will know very shortly. We could easily get to the middle of next week and it all collapses for her.”

Former cabinet minister Nicky Morgan, who was also sacked by Ms May, predicted that there could be a leadership challenge over the summer.

“I think it's fairly clear Theresa May cannot lead us into another election – of course, we don't know when that's going to happen, and I don't think we should rush that. But I do think if we're going to have a leadership contest in the Conservative Party, what we cannot do is have another coronation like last summer.”

One Brexiteer Tory MP, who said Ms May staying for now was crucial to keeping Brexit on track, said: “It’s unlikely that this parliament will go on five years and unlikely that Theresa May will lead us into another general election.

“Everyone thinks that, but we need her to be strong and stable and tough it out for a while.”

The talks with Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionist leader, will not start until Tuesday – after Ms May’s perilous post-election meetings with her Cabinet and backbenchers.

In a Saturday night of farce, No 10 first announced that an agreement had been reached – only to release a second statement, just five hours later, admitting it had not.

The DUP issued its own statement, dismissing the claim of an agreed deal, apparently angry at the attempt to bounce the party into signing up before it was ready.

Mr Gove's return as Environment Secretary sees the lead Brexiteer repaid for loyalty since his demise in the last Tory leadership contest.

The reshuffle saw other key Cabinet ministers remain in post, including Jeremy Hunt (Health), Justine Greening (Education), Chris Grayling (Transport), Greg Clark (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy). Sajid Javid (Local Government) and Priti Patel (International Development).

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn predicted Theresa May will be forced into another general election within months, insisting: “We are ready any time.”

It would require 15 per cent of Conservative MPs – a total of 48 – to write to Mr Brady to trigger a vote of no-confidence in her leadership.

But Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, dismissed suggestions that Ms May was fighting for her political life, insisting Tory MPs would “rally behind her and give her their support”.

Asked if she was a “dead woman walking”, he said: “I don’t agree with that. She won the biggest share of the vote since the 1987 election, for over 30 years.”

The Prime Minister is reported to have been in “floods of tears” as her election disaster unfolded, but Sir Michael said: “I don’t know about that.”

Independent News Service

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