News analysis

The best of times, the worst of times, for Theresa May

British PM faces her first party conference as leader, but must set clear vision for Brexit

British Prime Minister Theresa May will be breaking with decades of political tradition today by delivering a substantial policy speech at the start of her ruling Conservative Party's annual conference. As a rule, British leaders make only the closing address at their parties' gatherings.

But Mrs May knows that these are hardly normal times, for her government faces the twin challenges of both extricating Britain from the European Union (EU) with minimum economic damage, while also preventing the Conservative Party from being torn apart by this divisive issue.

By opting to address party members right at the start of their gathering, which takes place this year in Birmingham, Britain's second most populous city, Mrs May hopes to reassure supporters that she has a clear vision of how to deal with Europe. But the rumblings within the Conservative Party show no signs of abating.

In theory, today should be her most glorious day. She faces her first party conference as leader since she became Prime Minister in mid-July. She enjoys high approval ratings and faces a divided Labour opposition which is unelectable.

For the first time in half a century, the thorny question of Britain's membership in the EU is settled, as the country voted to leave the EU. And all the top Conservative politicians who used to snipe at the government from the backbench are now included in Mrs May's administration, including people such as former London mayor Boris Johnson, who has landed the plum job of Foreign Secretary. In short, this should be the dream party conference. Still, the calm within the party is illusory.


Mrs May visiting a military base in the Salisbury Plain area in England. She faces her first party conference as leader today, amid concerns over the economic fallout over Brexit and the Conservative Party's unity on the issue. PHOTO: REUTERS

The first challenge facing Mrs May is to decide when to start the divorce negotiations with the EU. Under existing European treaties, once negotiations start, Europe and Britain have only two years to complete them, so Mrs May prefers not to fire the start pistol until she is sure that Britain knows what it wants, and has the right civil servants to run the complex task of negotiations.

However, British officials now acknowledge that time is not in their favour. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose support is crucial for any deal, is growing impatient with Britain's dithering.

So are Mrs May's backbenchers.

And British government lawyers are already embroiled in a legal dispute over the amount of information which the authorities need to release to the public about the country's plans with the EU.

Mrs May is on record as refusing to "give a blow-by-blow account" of her negotiating stance with Europe. Still, she will have to use the speech today to hint at some timetable for the talks.

Speculation among political observers is that she will suggest early next year as the starting point for Brexit negotiations.

But it is the substance of the talks which divides the Conservatives most. Some backbenchers argue that Britain should do everything possible to keep its place in Europe's single trading market, even if this means that the country's borders remain open to migrants from other EU member-states.

They are now called supporters of a "soft Brexit", a strategy which tries to preserve most of Britain's EU membership advantages.

But many Conservatives are proponents of a "hard Brexit" approach, arguing that the imposition of immigration controls to prevent the continued flow of migrants from Europe should be the key aim, even if Britain disconnects itself from EU markets.

There is no doubt that "hard Brexit" supporters are now in the ascendancy within the ruling party. On the eve of the Conservative annual conference, Mr Johnson claimed he wants Britain's EU exit deal to "liberate the country to champion free trade" with the world. Meanwhile, Mr Liam Fox, Britain's trade minister, had suggested he was leaning towards trading on World Trade Organisation terms, rather than being part of the EU single market.

Brexit, he said, gave the United Kingdom "a golden opportunity" to forge a new role in the world.

Mrs May is keen to keep her options open. So, while she is expected to acknowledge that restrictions on immigration are now her government's top priority in negotiations with Europe, she will also try to reassure European partners that Britain still has not given up on efforts to maintain membership in the continent's single market.

Her authority as a new and popular leader should see her through this conference.

Still, she will also recall that three Conservative British prime ministers lost power because they ultimately failed to control their party's bickering over Europe. Mrs May is determined not to become the fourth such victim in a row.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 02, 2016, with the headline 'The best of times, the worst of times, for Theresa May'. Print Edition | Subscribe