News analysis

May's outreach to rivals paints image of PM on shaky ground

Her call for united front on Brexit rejected by Labour, some Tories

Prime Minister Theresa May has appealed to domestic political opponents to support her government as Britain embarks on the difficult and complex legal and diplomatic negotiations required to leave the European Union (EU).

Speaking on the anniversary of her first year in power, Mrs May challenged the opposition "to contribute, and not just criticise" and "to come forward with their views" about how Britain can tackle the serious challenges facing the country.

But the appeal was swiftly rejected by the main opposition Labour. "Let's face it, the government has run out of steam," said Mr Jeremy Corbyn, the party's leader, who demanded instead that Mrs May resign and hold an early general election.

And some of the government's own backbenchers have distanced themselves from the cross-party cooperation idea. So, instead of consolidating her position, Mrs May's appeal has merely fuelled an ongoing debate about her chances of political survival.

The Prime Minister presents her gesture of reaching out to opponents as common sense. The Brexit negotiations - as the process of Britain's separation from the EU is known - is the most daunting task facing London since the dismantling of the British empire more than half a century ago, with consequences just as profound for Britain's economy and global posture.

Brexit is also a legal and bureaucratic nightmare. The Repeal Bill, a single piece of legislation that Mrs May's government is scheduled to table before Parliament tomorrow, transposes an astonishing 12,000 regulations adopted by the EU over decades into British law.

Mrs May, who vows that her "commitment to change Britain is undimmed", claims that it's normal that her opponents should be invited to help with the "reality I now face as Prime Minister".

British Prime Minister Theresa May has asked the opposition to come forward with their views about how Britain can tackle the serious challenges facing the country, but the appeal was swiftly rejected by the Labour party. Mr Jeremy Corbyn (below), th
British Prime Minister Theresa May has asked the opposition to come forward with their views about how Britain can tackle the serious challenges facing the country, but the appeal was swiftly rejected by the Labour party. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The gesture is also presented by Mrs May's allies as one of political humility. "There are big issues facing this country," said Mr Damian Green, the Prime Minister's closest Cabinet colleague, "and no political party has the complete monopoly of wisdom".

British Prime Minister Theresa May has asked the opposition to come forward with their views about how Britain can tackle the serious challenges facing the country, but the appeal was swiftly rejected by the Labour party. Mr Jeremy Corbyn (below), th
Mr Jeremy Corbyn, the party's leader, wants instead for Mrs May to resign and hold an early general election. PHOTO: REUTERS

"We want to see our politicians working together - that's the point the Prime Minister is making," Mr Green said.

NO NEW IDEAS

Let's face it, the government has run out of steam.

MR JEREMY CORBYN, Labour Party leader.

MAKE YOURSELF USEFUL

Contribute, and not just criticise.

MRS THERESA MAY, British Prime Minister.

COOPERATIVE PARTIES

We want to see our politicians working together - that's the point the Prime Minister is making.

MR DAMIAN GREEN, First Secretary of State and Minister for the Cabinet Office.

But behind such lofty claims lurks a simpler reality: the fact that Mrs May failed to obtain an overall parliamentary majority in last month's general election, and her parliamentary legislation agenda is almost certain to be derailed.

Labour, as well as most of the smaller parliamentary opposition parties, have already served notice of their intention to table hundreds of various amendments to the EU Repeal Bill.

In theory, Mrs May can see these challenges off - the ruling Conservatives are in alliance with a small party from Northern Ireland and that gives the government a slender overall majority in the 650-seat House of Commons. But this is precarious and might not be applicable to Brexit questions, where the Conservatives are themselves divided, and some government MPs could choose to side with the opposition.

Mrs May probably knows that her appeal for cross-party collaboration will fall on deaf ears. Grand political bargains of this kind are rare in British politics and usually reserved for wartime situations.

Still, by raising the possibility of cooperation across party divides, the Prime Minister is suggesting that she has many alternative ways of governing despite the weakness of her parliamentary majority.

Mrs May also hopes that, in rejecting the offer of cooperation, it will be the Labour opposition which will end up being blamed for hampering the Brexit process.

Still, extending a hand of friendship to Mr Corbyn carries its own costs for the Prime Minister. Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis is publicly warning Mrs May not to deal with Labour which, according to him, has "nothing to offer" apart from "spending other people's money".

And on the floor of the parliamentary debating chamber, Sir Desmond Swayne, another leading Conservative MP, expressed his opposition to Mrs May's "love fest" with the Labour leader.

The Daily Telegraph, the newspaper closest to the Conservatives, reports that "more than a dozen" government MPs have formally notified their party of their wish to see Mrs May go.

"The parliamentary party has discounted her continuation - she is finished," the paper reported an unnamed leading Conservative as saying.

That might be an overstatement - 48 Conservative MPs, 15 per cent of the parliamentary party, are required to trigger a Conservative leadership election and there is no indication that Mrs May is facing a rebellion of such a magnitude.

But it is equally clear that she is vulnerable, and that her offer of cooperation has done little to improve her standing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2017, with the headline 'May's outreach to rivals paints image of PM on shaky ground'. Print Edition | Subscribe