May faces Brexit strategy fight amid political turmoil

British PM races to shore up govt amid calls to soften Brexit stance

LONDON •British Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party resumed talks on a deal to prop up her minority government yesterday as she faced a battle over her Brexit strategy, just days before European Union divorce talks are due to begin.

As Britain entered a sixth day of political turmoil, Mrs May's team continued talks with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to secure their support after the Prime Minister failed to win a majority in last Thursday's election.

But a deadly blaze at a tower block in London could delay the announcement of any deal.

"The talks are continuing but I think the events in London today probably will have some impact on that. I think it's unlikely there will be any announcement today," a DUP spokesman said.

Mrs May's botched election gamble has left her so weakened that her Brexit strategy is the subject of debate within her party, with former prime ministers John Major and David Cameron calling on her to soften her Brexit approach.

After more than an hour of talks between Mrs May and DUP leader Arlene Foster on Tuesday, Mrs May said the discussion had been productive. Ms Foster said she hoped a deal could be done "sooner rather than later".

Despite the uncertainty over her ability to govern, Mrs May said Brexit negotiations would begin as planned on Monday. But pressure was mounting on Mrs May to change course on the type of Brexit Britain should pursue, and consult more widely across rival parties.

Citing unnamed sources, a report by The Times said Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond is pushing Mrs May not to leave the Customs union - an arrangement that guarantees tariff-free trade within the bloc but prohibits members from striking third-party trade deals. The finance ministry declined to comment.

Nevertheless, it illustrated the challenge Prime Minister May will face - finding a position that satisfies both pro-European and eurosceptic factions of her party - if she wants to remain in power. To do so, she will be heavily reliant on the 10 lawmakers from the eurosceptic DUP, who can help her edge past the 326 votes needed in Parliament to avoid the collapse of the government.

But a deal with the DUP also risks destabilising Northern Ireland by increasing the influence of pro- British unionists, who have struggled for years with nationalists.

Yesterday, Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein said it would meet Mrs May in London today.

Meanwhile, European politicians also appeared to detect a shift in the mood around Brexit. When French President Emmanuel Macron met Mrs May in Paris on Tuesday, he said the door was open for Britain to remain a member of the EU until talks ended. However, he added that once it was done, Brexit would be difficult to reverse.

The two leaders also discussed the fight against terror, and said they would launch an Anglo- French campaign to help firms clamp down on online hate speech.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2017, with the headline 'May faces Brexit strategy fight amid political turmoil'. Print Edition | Subscribe