Tuesday 25 June 2019

Resisting calls to quit, Theresa May will campaign for EU elections

  • May begs Corbyn for support, stands firm over "new deal"
  • Her party losing patience tweaked Brexit plan backfires
  • Labour tells May: Pull June vote on Brexit deal
UK Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Reuters
UK Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Reuters

William James, Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan

British Prime Minister Theresa May resisted growing calls to resign on Wednesday, vowing to press on despite mounting opposition from MPs and even some of her own ministers to her latest Brexit gambit.

True to form for a prime minister who has weathered months of calls to quit, May's chief enforcer told a powerful group of Conservatives she would campaign for European Parliament elections on Thursday and then meet the group's chair on Friday for another discussion about the party's leadership rules.

It was not clear whether that conversation would end with any decision on when she should step down.

But the loud calls for her resignation further deepened Britain's Brexit crisis, sapping an already weak leader of her authority. Almost three years since Britain voted to leave the EU and just under two months after the scheduled departure, it is not clear when, how or even if Brexit will happen.

What was clear was that May planned to stay on for now. The chairman of the powerful Conservative 1922 Committee, which can make or break prime ministers, told lawmakers that she planned to campaign in the European poll on Thursday.

"It's just more kicking the can down the road," said one Conservative MP after the meeting.

May has so far fended off bids to oust her by promising to set out a departure timetable once parliament has had a chance to vote again on Brexit, but a new discussion on a possible date could now take place on Friday.

In her last pitch on Tuesday to get her divorce deal approved by Britain's deeply divided parliament, she offered MPs a vote on whether to hold a second Brexit referendum -- once her legislation passes the first stage -- as well as closer trading arrangements with the EU in future as incentives.

But the backlash was swift and fierce.

Both ruling Conservative and opposition Labour MPs rubbished May's Withdrawal Agreement Bill, or WAB, legislation which implements the terms of Britain's twice-delayed departure.

"There is one last chance to get it right and leave in an orderly fashion. But it is now time for Prime Minister Theresa May to go -- and without delay," said Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, chairman of parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

"She must announce her resignation after Thursday's European (Parliament) elections," he wrote in the Financial Times.

May's latest offer has enraged eurosceptics opposed to a second referendum, and fails to go far enough for those who want to give the public another say in the hope of stopping Brexit altogether.

Even some of her ministers criticised the pitch, one source close to the cabinet said, explaining that they felt the concessions had gone much further than they had agreed at a meeting on Tuesday. Another source said May had cancelled meetings with senior cabinet colleagues on Wednesday evening.

May stood firm during more than two hours of questions in parliament, urging MPs to back the bill and then have a chance to make changes to it, so they can have more control over the final shape of Brexit.

"In time another prime minister will be standing at this despatch box," May said, acknowledging that her leadership was drawing to a close.

"But while I am here, I have a duty to be clear with the House (of Commons) about the facts. If we are going to deliver Brexit in this parliament we are going to have to pass a Withdrawal Agreement Bill," she told MPs.

Asked by eurosceptic lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg whether she really believed in the new deal she had proposed or whether she was simply going through the motions, May said:

"I don't think I would have been standing here at the despatch box and be in receipt of some of the comments I have been in receipt of from colleagues on my own side and across the house if I didn't believe in what I was doing."

Britain's marathon crisis over Brexit has stunned allies and foes alike. With the deadlock in London, the world's fifth-largest economy faces an array of options including an exit with a deal to smooth the transition, a no-deal exit, an election, a second referendum, or even revocation of the Article 50 notice to leave the EU.

The pound was on track for its longest-ever losing streak against the euro as some traders said they saw the rising chance of a no-deal Brexit. Those fears pushed investors into the relative safety of government bonds -- particularly those that offer protection against a spike in inflation.

There were some signs of support for May in parliament, but swathes of empty Conservative benches during Wednesday's debate underlined the fact that many of her fiercest critics had decided to stay away.

"The proposed second reading of the WAB is clearly doomed to failure so there really is no point wasting any more time on the prime minister's forlorn hope of salvation," Andrew Bridgen, a Conservative MP, told Reuters.

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