Relief - and criticism - in UK over Brexit deal

Agreement with EU eases some of the pressure on the May government

LONDON • British Prime Minister Theresa May won a temporary reprieve from rival factions within her own party yesterday by clinching a Brexit agreement with Brussels that some business leaders hope will increase prospects of an orderly exit from the bloc.

The deal took some of the heat out of a conflict among Conservative lawmakers that had threatened Mrs May's fragile grip on the party's leadership, and eased pressure on her minority government from business leaders who have repeatedly warned of a post-Brexit exodus.

"Everyone's won a reprieve here," said Mr Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe think-tank.

Government ministers lined up to congratulate Mrs May, with her deputy Damian Green saying it was a "big successful moment" for her.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove, a top Brexit campaigner who ran against Mrs May in a party leadership race last year, said the preliminary agreement was a "significant personal, political achievement".

Conservative MP Anna Soubry, a leading pro-EU advocate, also gave the deal a "warm welcome" and hoped it would heal the "dreadful Brexit divide".

Earlier this week, The Sun newspaper reported a plot to oust Mrs May before Christmas and install her Brexit Secretary David Davis as prime minister.

While that threat may have receded for now, it has not gone away and Mrs May faces an uphill struggle getting parliamentary backing for the deal.

Mr Keir Starmer, chief Brexit spokesman for the Labour party, welcomed the deal but cautioned that the "political price of compromise" was not yet known.

The pro-EU Liberal Democrats, who have called for a second referendum on EU membership, wrote: "How long before it's torn apart by her own MPs?"

Mrs May also faced an immediate backlash from hardliners at home for making compromises.

"It's not Brexit," Mr Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party and a major driving force behind last year's Brexit referendum, told BBC radio. "A deal in Brussels is good news for Mrs May as we can now move on to the next stage of humiliation," he tweeted.

Campaign group Leave.EU issued a scathing reaction to the deal, saying that "our lily-livered politicians have sold the country down the river". It called the agreement a "complete capitulation".

Mrs May was on the brink of sealing a deal in Brussels on Monday but the bid was scuppered by Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 MPs prop up the government on key votes in Parliament. DUP leader Arlene Foster offered only grudging support to Mrs May yesterday, saying that aspects of the agreement could require further examination.

But business leaders welcomed the declaration of progress. "Businesses will be breathing a sigh of relief," said Mr Adam Marshall, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce.

After a negotiation that has focused on issues in Northern Ireland, Mrs May faces further challenges in other devolved nations - Scotland and Wales - where support for the EU is far stronger than in England.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who wants independence for Scotland from the rest of Britain, warned that the "devil is in the detail and things now get really tough".

She added that any "special arrangements" for Northern Ireland should also be made available to Scotland.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2017, with the headline 'Relief - and criticism - in UK over Brexit deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe