LONDON (AFP) – British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government moved to fend off a threatened parliamentary rebellion over abortion on Thursday (June 29) ahead of a vote of confidence, laying bare its weakness following a disastrous election.
The House of Commons will vote later on May’s legislative programme – the Queen’s Speech – in a crucial test of whether her Conservative government can survive after losing its parliamentary majority on June 8.
The legislative agenda should pass after May formed a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 MPs will vote with the 317 Conservatives on key issues in the 650-seat chamber.
But the government’s jitters were made clear when it announced it would change abortion rights for Northern Irish women ahead of a threatened revolt by MPs.
The opposition Labour party tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech demanding the state-run National Health Service (NHS) in England stop charging women coming from Northern Ireland, where abortion is illegal except when the life of the mother is in danger.
Just hours before it went to a vote, ministers wrote to MPs promising to stop the charges.
But May’s personal authority is deeply damaged after calling the election three years early, expecting to win a landslide only to find herself hanging on by a thread.
She cut short a trip to Berlin on Thursday with European allies ahead of next week’s G20 summit, to ensure she was present for Thursday’s vote.
BREXIT PLANS IN FLUX
The majority of the Bills in the Queen’s Speech concern Britain’s departure from the European Union, on which the first formal negotiations took place last week.
But May’s Brexit plan is under scrutiny as many saw the election as a rebuke to her move to pull Britain out of Europe’s single market – its largest trading market – to prioritise cutting EU immigration.
Calls to prioritise jobs are growing, particularly from finance minister Philip Hammond.
He criticised eurosceptic Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson this week over his claim that Britain could “have its cake and eat it” in the negotiations.
“I try to discourage talk of ‘cake’ amongst my colleagues,” Hammond said during a speech in Berlin, where he emphasised the need for transitional deals to avoid a damaging “cliff-edge” when Britain leaves the EU.
At the same time in London, Brexit minister David Davis appeared to slap down Hammond, saying his views were “not quite consistent”.
May’s spokeswoman insisted that “everybody is on the same page”, and nothing had changed.
But Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform said: “Whatever May and Davis are saying in public, Brexit policy is in fact in flux.”
Labour, which won 262 seats in the election, officially accepts that Britain will be leaving the single market but wants “full tariff-free access” to protect jobs.
However, some Labour MP have tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech on Thursday calling for the government to consider staying in the single market.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has ordered lawmakers to abstain, raising the prospect of his own rebellion.
May announced a deal with the DUP on Monday where they agreed to back her minority government in confidence and budget votes, in return for an extra £1 billion (S$1.8 billion) in state aid for Northern Ireland.
The Conservatives and the DUP together defeated a Labour amendment to the Queen’s Speech late on Wednesday calling for an end to a six-year cap on public sector pay.
But government officials had earlier indicated they may review the policy, reflecting concern among Conservative MPs about continued austerity.
The DUP deal has also caused disquiet among Conservative ranks because of the Northern Irish party’s strident views on abortion and gay marriage.
Many commentators question how long the alliance will last, while May’s future is widely discussed in terms of when, not if, she will stand down.
Former minister Nicky Morgan, who was sacked by May, said Wednesday that once the terms of the Brexit deal were clear, the Conservatives should “think about who we want to be our future leader”.