MANCHESTER (AFP, Reuters) - Britain’s government wants Brexit negotiations to succeed but is preparing for a scenario in which they could fail, Prime Minister Theresa May told her Conservative Party’s annual conference on Wednesday (Oct 4).
“I believe it is profoundly in all our interests for the negotiations to succeed but I know that some are worried whether we are prepared in the event that they do not. It is our responsibility as a government to prepare for every eventuality,” she said in a keynote speech.
“I know some find the negotiations frustrating,” she said, adding: “But if we approach them in the right spirit... I am confident we will find a deal that works for Britain and for Europe too”. May also said she understood EU citizens living in Britain who felt “unsettled and nervous”.
“Let me be clear that we value the contribution you make to the life of our country. You are welcome here and I urge the negotiating teams to reach agreement on this quickly because we want you to stay,” she said.
She was speaking at the close of the party conference, a day after the European Parliament overwhelmingly backed a motion calling for trade talks with Britain to be delayed because talks have not made sufficient progress. MEPs meeting in Strasbourg hit out at May’s government, saying infighting in her cabinet was hindering talks on key divorce issues including Britain’s exit bill.
The vote called on EU leaders to postpone a decision on moving to the next phase, which they are due to make at a summit on Oct 19, unless there is a “major breakthrough”.
At the Conservative Party conference on Wednesday May also reset her “mainstream Conservative agenda”, taking on her critics, even a protester who interrupted her mid-speech, in an attempt to prove she can lead Britain and secure a strong Brexit.
When the protester and a coughing fit brought her words almost to a halt, May won over many members in the hall by promising to reinvigorate the party by offering pledges to younger people and families alike.
The 61-year-old May also said she didn’t mind being called the “Ice Maiden” but that unlike many of her critics she came from lowly beginnings, something that convinced her of the need of what she called a British dream.
Her address could be make or break for the prime minister, whose attempt to present a united front at the conference has been undermined by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a possible leadership contender who received rousing applause for his speech on Tuesday.
“This is a Conservatism I believe in, a Conservatism of fairness and justice and opportunity for all, a Conservatism that keeps the British Dream alive for a new generation,” she told the cheering crowd. “That’s what I’m in this for,” she said in a phrase she repeated at least eight times.
“That’s what we must all be in this for.”
The conference in the northern English city of Manchester was a sombre affair, light on policy and heavy on self doubt. Despite coming second in the June election, the opposition Labour Party’s annual meeting was almost celebratory.
After Labour’s assault on capitalism, the backbone of Conservative policy, May wants to underline the importance of re-arguing the defence of free markets and fiscal prudence. But she also wants to engage with younger voters who have flocked to the policies championed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran leftist who has promised to renationalise the railways and end tuition fees that leave graduates in debt.
One senior Conservative said delegates were “hungry for ideas” and leadership, wanting their prime minister to win back the upper hand over Labour, which has closed the gap with the Conservatives in the opinion polls.
The run up to May’s speech, however, was overshadowed by Johnson who once again dominated the airwaves after he stunned some party members at the conference by saying Libya could become a new Dubai if it could “clear the dead bodies away.”
Again there were calls for Johnson to resign or be sacked, demands that May had hoped had been put aside after the foreign minister pledged his loyalty to her after setting out his own Brexit plan in a local newspaper.
May must also contend with a resurgent opposition Labour Party which accuses the government of mismanaging the economy and worsening social divisions. She and her ministers have sought to depict the Labour leadership as dangerous Marxists.
One senior Conservative said May must show "personality, vision and confidence" in her speech and offer "delegates hungry for ideas" something new.
Her deputy, First Secretary of State Damian Green, said May wanted to take the focus away from what he described as "a lot of drama" this week and onto helping people with their daily lives.
"What you will hear today from the prime minister is a very personal statement of the lessons she's learnt from the election and what she derives from that in terms of what the government needs to do in the months and years to come," Green told the BBC.