PM May takes control of Brexit endgame

Young, pro-European Union, anti-Brexit campaigners in Britain taking their message on the road across London yesterday, as part of their "Stand Up For Our Future!" campaign.
Young, pro-European Union, anti-Brexit campaigners in Britain taking their message on the road across London yesterday, as part of their "Stand Up For Our Future!" campaign.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

She reshuffles Cabinet amid resignations to stop anti-EU bloc from tearing up her exit deal

LONDON • Mrs Theresa May rolled the dice with a dramatic reshuffle of her ministerial team as she battles to cling on to her job and stop her own Conservative Party from tearing up her Brexit deal.

The British Prime Minister reduced the power of her critics and promoted allies to key positions as she took personal charge of the final days of the UK's divorce talks with the European Union.

The appointments late on Friday round off an extraordinary week in which seven members of her government quit their posts, and a plot to oust her from power gathered momentum. Mrs May's perilous position puts at risk the fruits of two years of negotiations and raises the chance that Britain will crash out of the EU without a deal in March.

In an effort to seize control of the political agenda, Mrs May named a junior official, Mr Stephen Barclay, as Brexit Secretary after Mr Dominic Raab quit the role. And she brought former home secretary Amber Rudd, a stalwart of the Remain campaign in the 2016 referendum, back into the Cabinet to replace Ms Esther McVey, a Brexit supporter who quit on Thursday as Work and Pensions Secretary.

Crucially, Ms May stripped the Brexit post of responsibility for the negotiations with the EU. Instead, Mr Barclay - who supported Leave in 2016 - will focus on the domestic legislation to prepare Britain for its scheduled departure in March.

The appointments took place against the unprecedented backdrop of five Cabinet ministers plotting to overhaul the agreement Mrs May has secured with the bloc. Ms Andrea Leadsom, who is convening the group, Mr Liam Fox, Mr Chris Grayling, Ms Penny Mordaunt and Mr Michael Gove are trying to draft an alternative plan that they can support and so stay in the government, a person familiar with the matter said on Friday.

Ms Leadsom, Ms Mordaunt and Mr Gove were all strongly touted to resign and join the seven members of Mrs May's administration who quit their posts.

But instead, they have remained in the Cabinet - for now - to try and secure the changes they want to the Brexit strategy from within the government. They will struggle to make a difference, as the EU has all but closed the door on any changes.

Mrs May is sticking resolutely to her strategy in the face of hostility from opposition parties, her supposed allies in Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, and members of her own party.

She took three hours of questions in the House of Commons on Thursday in a session that made it clear she will struggle to get the approval she needs from the chamber. If she fails, the risk is that Britain tumbles out of the bloc in March without any deal to smooth the process.

Brexiteers loathe the 585-page withdrawal deal as it looks set to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU even after a 21-month planned transition period.

Under the plan - a "backstop" to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland and ensure the border remains open with Ireland - Britain would have to heed EU competition and state aid rules, without any say over how they are set. And the country would not be able to unilaterally pull out of the arrangement.

That, say Brexiteers, is worse than EU membership and would make the UK a "vassal" state.

Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of a group of 60 pro-Brexit Tories, on Thursday said he had sent a formal letter demanding a vote of no confidence in Mrs May's leadership, with other lawmakers following suit. Forty-eight letters are needed to trigger a vote, and leading eurosceptic Steve Baker said on Friday he believes the threshold had been reached.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 18, 2018, with the headline 'PM May takes control of Brexit endgame'. Print Edition | Subscribe