British PM Theresa May clings to power after Brexit gambit backfires

British Prime Minister Theresa May's departure will deepen the Brexit crisis as a new leader is likely to want a more decisive split, raising the chances of a confrontation with the European Union and an election that could usher in a socialist government. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - British Prime Minister Theresa May clung to power on Thursday (May 23) after her final Brexit gambit backfired, overshadowing a European election that has shown a United Kingdom still riven over its divorce from the EU.

Mrs May's departure will deepen the Brexit crisis as a new leader is likely to want a more decisive split, raising the chances of a confrontation with the European Union and an election that could usher in a socialist government.

In such a fluid situation, Britain faces an array of options including an orderly exit with a deal, a no-deal exit, an election or a second referendum that could ultimately reverse the 2016 decision to leave the EU.

Mrs May, who won the top job in the turmoil that followed the 2016 referendum on EU membership, has repeatedly failed to get parliament's approval for her divorce deal, which she pitched as a way to heal Britain's Brexit divisions.

Her last gambit, offering a possible second referendum and closer trading arrangements with the EU, triggered a revolt by some Brexit-supporting ministers and the resignation of her parliamentary business manager.

On Thursday, with Britons voting in a European election in which pre-poll surveys suggested Mrs May's Conservatives would be thrashed by Nigel Farage's Brexit Party, Mrs May was digging in.

However, amid widespread dissent across the Conservative Party, the government ditched plans to publish legislation to enact Mrs May's EU deal on Friday until early next month. Mrs May has also shelved plans to put it before parliament on June 7.

Her spokesman said Mrs May would be listening to colleagues' concerns amid suggestions the proposed bill was being redrawn or that she was on the verging of quitting.

Asked if she was planning to rewrite the legislation, the spokesman said: "The PM is having discussions with ministers in relation to the bill."

"The prime minister wants to ensure that the UK leaves the EU with a deal, and the only way to leave with a deal is by ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement," he added.

Foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said Mrs May would still be prime minister when US President Donald Trump arrives for a state visit on June 3.

But newspapers said her time was up.

The mass-circulation Sun newspaper's front page was headlined "May set to go after Brexit fiasco", while the Times led with "May prepares to quit after cabinet mutiny".

EU supporters fear Brexit will undermine Britain's economy - fifth-largest in the world - as well as London's position as one of the world's top two financial capitals. The also say it will weaken the West as it grapples with Mr Trump's unpredictable presidency and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.

Mrs May, who has been obdurate through one of the most tumultuous premierships of recent British history, had promised to leave office if lawmakers approved her Brexit deal, but is now under intense pressure to name a date.

Sterling, which tumbled on the 2016 Brexit vote to its biggest one-day fall since the early 1970s, dropped 0.4 per cent to a new 4-1/2 month low of $1.2605. The yield on Britain's 10-year bond fell to 0.991 per cent, the lowest since March 29, the day Britain had been due to leave the EU.

Nearly three years after Britain voted by 52 per cent to 48 per cent to leave the EU, it remains unclear how, when or even whether it will leave the European club it joined in 1973. The current deadline to leave is Oct 31.

When Mrs May goes, her Conservative Party will elect a leader who is likely to want to renegotiate the deal she agreed with the EU in November, raising the chances of a confrontation with the bloc and a national election.

The bookmakers' favourite to succeed Mrs May is Boris Johnson, the face of the official campaign to leave the EU, who has said he wants a more decisive split. More than a dozen others are seen as potential candidates.

If there were an election and the Conservatives lost, the winner would be Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran socialist who wants to nationalise swathes of the British economy but has not said what shareholders will get in return.

Mr Corbyn also says he wants to take Britain out of the EU.

The Investment bank BNP Paribas said it now saw a 40 per cent probability of Britain leaving the EU without a transition agreement in place.

Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the powerful Conservative 1922 Committee, which can make or break prime ministers, told lawmakers that Mrs May would meet him on Friday to discuss her leadership.

The Times said she would then name a date for her departure and remain prime minister while her successor was elected.

European election results are expected after 2100 GMT on Sunday.

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