LONDON • British Prime Minister Theresa May warned her divided party yesterday that there may be "no Brexit at all" if they wrecked her plan to forge a close relationship with the European Union after leaving the world's biggest trading bloc.
"My message to the country this weekend is simple: We need to keep our eyes on the prize," Mrs May wrote on Facebook. "If we don't, we risk ending up with no Brexit at all."
Linking the fate of Brexit to her own survival in such an explicit way indicates just how precarious Mrs May's position remains after her government was thrust into crisis and US President Donald Trump publicly criticised her Brexit strategy.
By warning that Brexit itself is in danger, Mrs May was sending a blunt message to the dozens of hard-line Brexiteers in her party that if they sink her premiership, then they risk squandering the victory of an EU exit that they have dreamed about for decades. Some pro-Brexit Conservatives fear that a deal could emerge that leaves Britain tightly bound to EU rules and represents a Brexit in name only.
Mrs May has repeatedly said Brexit will happen and has ruled out a rerun of the 2016 referendum. Seeking to strike a balance between those who want a smooth Brexit and those who fear staying too close to the EU's orbit, Mrs May sought the approval of senior ministers for her plans on July 6. After hours of talks at her Chequers country residence, she appeared to have won over her Cabinet, but just two days later Mr David Davis resigned as Brexit secretary, followed by her foreign minister, Mr Boris Johnson, the next day.
Mrs May called yesterday for the country to back her plan for "friction-free movement of goods", saying it was the only option to avoid undermining the peace in Northern Ireland and preserving the unity of the United Kingdom.
Mr Davis, writing in the Sunday Times, said it was an"astonishingly dishonest claim" to say there is no worked-out alternative to Mrs May's plan. He said her plan would allow EU regulations to harm British manufacturers. "Be in no doubt: Under the government's proposal, our fingers would still be caught in this mangle and the EU would use it ruthlessly to punish us for leaving and handicap our future competitiveness," Mr Davis said.
Mrs May's position was further undermined by Mr Trump, who said in an interview published in Mr Rupert Murdoch's Sun newspaper last Friday that her strategy would probably kill off any chance of a post-Brexit trade deal with the world's biggest economy.
Mrs May yesterday revealed that Mr Trump had previously advised her to sue the EU rather than enter into an exit negotiation with the bloc. "He told me I should sue the EU," she told BBC television. "Sue the EU. Not go into negotiations - sue them."
Though Mr Trump later contradicted his comments by then promising a great US trade deal, the President made clear his admiration for the 54-year-old Mr Johnson, who Mr Trump said would one day make a great British prime minister.
Mr Johnson, the face of the Brexit campaign for many has remained silent in public since he warned in his resignation letter on July 9 that the "Brexit dream" was being suffocated by needless self-doubt.
When asked yesterday if she would stand if a Conservative Party leadership contest was triggered, Mrs May declined to directly answer saying: "I am in this for the long term."
The extent of the danger to Mrs May from rebels in her party will become clearer over the course of two debates in Parliament this week. Pro-Brexit lawmakers are expected to use a debate today on customs legislation to try to force her to harden up her Brexit plan, while a debate on trade tomorrow will see pro-EU lawmakers push for even closer ties with the bloc.
Brexiteer rebels are unlikely to have enough support in Parliament to win a vote, but the debate will show how many in Mrs May's party are prepared to vote against her at a time when some are looking to gather the numbers needed to challenge her leadership.