Monday 14 October 2019

May pulls out all the steps in hunt for Brexit solution

Threats to her leadership and more DUP warnings pose extra danger

Pressure: British Prime Minister Theresa May makes her speech at the Conservative Party annual conference. Photo: PA
Pressure: British Prime Minister Theresa May makes her speech at the Conservative Party annual conference. Photo: PA
John Downing

John Downing

Embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May has called on her warring Conservative Party to back her in trying to broker a reasonable Brexit deal - including compromise on the Irish Border.

Concluding four days of bad-tempered rows at the her party conference, Mrs May tried to lighten her keynote speech by dancing on to the stage to the strains of 'Dancing Queen' by Abba, and telling jokes. She staunchly defended her strategy in the tough EU-UK divorce talks which Brussels now says must conclude in a draft deal by November 18.

But Mrs May's ongoing internal party difficulties were again compounded by a third media intervention by Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster, whose party keeps the UK minority government in office.

Ms Foster effectively repeated her threats to withdraw support if a Border deal is not satisfactory, stressing the intensity of DUP objections to applying controls for Northern Ireland exports to Britain as part of a Brexit solution.

"The red line is blood red, it is very red," Ms Foster said.

Sinn Féin branded these comments as "absolutely bizarre", claiming the DUP leader has "lost the run of herself". Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O'Neill accused Ms Foster of being "out of touch".

Mrs May's plan proposes the UK aligns with EU standards on goods and food products, but diverges from the trade bloc in the regulation of services. This idea also faces many EU objections but may offer the basis for a compromise solution on the Irish Border. She said it was "in the national interest" to back the plan, which was roundly rejected by EU leaders last month as unworkable. "What we are proposing is very challenging for the EU. But if we stick together and hold our nerve I know we can get a deal that delivers for Britain."

Without naming them, she hit out at her critics among prominent Conservative MPs, including former foreign minister Boris Johnson. She suggested their ideas for a more decisive economic break with the EU put hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs at risk.

Among the Irish Border compromises now being considered is a complex proposal that involves carrying out customs checks away from the Border itself, but also minimising the need for regulatory inspections by having Northern Irish-made goods conform to EU standards after Brexit.

Officials are also floating the idea of aligning UK and EU customs rules temporarily until new technology can be deployed that will make physical border checks unnecessary. But again this faces huge EU objections and the DUP reticence on the entire issue is a further complication.

There was speculation throughout about a leadership heave. One backbencher, James Duddridge, a supporter of Boris Johnson, said he had attempted to trigger the process for a leadership election.

Mrs May struck an optimistic tone, by promising "better days ahead" after Brexit.

She also signalled a loosening of the national purse strings for a new cancer-detection strategy and a boost for housebuilding.

Irish Independent

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