Prime Minister Theresa May appealed Wednesday to her divided party to unite behind her as she heads into the ‘toughest phase’ of Brexit negotiations, as EU leaders pressure Britain to change tack.
She offered delegates at her Conservative party conference a positive vision of life after Brexit, which she announced would also see the end of eight years of austerity measures.
Brexit was a ‘moment of opportunity’, she told a packed hall in Birmingham, central England, adding: ‘There is a whole world out there. Let’s lift our horizons to meet it.’
But the party remains deeply split over Brexit, with eurosceptic MPs led by former foreign minister Boris Johnson running a programme of conference fringe events at which they savaged May’s plan.
EU leaders have also rejected her proposal for Britain to remain closely economically aligned with the bloc, and gave her until a summit on October 18 to rework it.
European officials are now increasingly anxious about the risk of Britain leaving with no deal in March.
France unveiled a draft law for such a scenario, with the budget minister admitting Paris was preparing ‘for the worst’.
May acknowledged the coming months were crucial, and warned failing to reach a deal ‘would be a bad outcome’ for both sides.
‘We are entering the toughest phase of the negotiations. If we stick together and hold our nerve, I know we can get a deal that delivers for Britain,’ she said.
Dancing Queen
May’s immediate concern Wednesday was to regain the confidence of her party, the day after Johnson gave his own rousing address to 1,500 delegates condemning her approach.
She began with a little dance after walking on stage to the sounds of ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’, one of her favourite tunes – a nod to her widely-mocked moves displayed on a recent visit to Africa.
May then set out a wide-ranging vision for the future, attacking leftist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, promising new homebuilding measures and vowing to make the economy work for those ‘left behind’.
Ten years after the global financial crisis, she announced that ‘the austerity it led to is over’, with new investment in public services due to be unveiled next year.
Delegates in the hall gave her a standing ovation, and many praised her feel-good message.
‘It struck the right tone. This is not the time for the party or the country to be divided,’ said Faye Purbrick, 41, from Somerset, western England.
But many Tories agree with Johnson and other Brexiteers, who argue May’s so-called Chequers plan betrays the hopes of a clean break expressed by many who voted in 2016 to leave the EU.
European officials meanwhile argue that May is asking for too much, ‘cherry-picking’ the benefits of the EU’s single market while still leaving the bloc.
She says her plan is the only way to protect jobs and trade while also avoiding physical checks on the land border between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
However, she did not actually use the word Chequers in the hour-long address, prompting speculation the name itself has been quietly dropped as too toxic.
May’s resilience
A major sticking point in the talks is the determination by all sides to keep the Irish border open.
Britain wants to achieve this through a new trade deal, but this could take years, and it has agreed to draw up a ‘backstop’ arrangement that would be in effect until then.
Speculation is growing that London may accept some checks on goods passing between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, in place of those on the land border.
But Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props ups May’s government, this week signalled its strong opposition.
MPs in the House of Commons must approve any final Brexit deal, and a rejection could cause chaos.
Despite the pressure on all sides, May has supporters in the party and Brussels who believe any alternative to her plan would make matters far worse.
She has surprised observers by surviving two years of plots against her, and few delegates in Birmingham want a change in leadership now.
‘We underestimated Mrs May’s resilience,’ a senior European official told AFP.