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Brexit

With knives out for Theresa May, some UK ministers are talking about Philip Hammond as possible PM to steer Brexit

Members of Theresa May’s own party are reportedly lined up to dump their leader

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 June, 2017, 2:07pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 June, 2017, 9:22pm

Some leading members of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party want finance minister Philip Hammond to become prime minister, a report said, replacing Theresa May and steering the country through the Brexit process.

May, prime minister for less than a year, has been badly damaged by her failure to win a parliamentary majority in a June 8 election and is still working to persuade a small northern Irish party to support her Conservatives in government.

Hammond was sidelined for months by May during the election campaign and had been widely expected to be fired after the vote. But the party’s poor showing has propelled him back into the spotlight.

Citing some members of May’s top team, or cabinet, the Sunday Times said Hammond should be appointed as a caretaker prime minister to see the country through until 2019 when it officially leaves the European Union.

Brexit minister David Davis should be named as his deputy, the newspaper quoted sources as saying.

“I think Philip is the only plausible candidate for a couple of years, with DD (David Davis) running Brexit,” the paper quoted a serving minister as saying.

“He is a more credible caretaker than the current prime minister. The PM’s brand is so damaged it is painful. The calculation that people are beginning to make is that she is so inadequate we can’t wait two years with her in place.”

A former cabinet colleague was quoted by the paper as saying that Hammond believed he could do the job. Not all cabinet members were in agreement however, with some backing Davis and others favouring Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

A spokesman for May’s Downing Street office declined to comment on the report.

May’s woes stem from a single fact: she lost the majority in the elected House of Commons that her Conservatives had before she called an election explicitly to win support for her Brexit plan.

She had proposed a hard departure - leaving the EU’s single market and customs union and so prioritising control of immigration over safeguarding the economy.

Voters refused to give May the endorsement she wanted, leaving her with fewer Tory lawmakers and denying her the power to govern Britain without support from other parties.

Even if she manages to stitch together a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to give her a working majority, opposition parties are already threatening to amend legislation scheduled for debate this week.

The Liberal Democrats fired their first salvo Thursday, tabling an amendment that seeks to keep Britain in both the single market and customs union.

“May said an increased majority would strengthen her hand, so now her minority party has to listen to many factions both within and outside,” said Lucy Thomas, who worked on the campaign to remain in the EU and is now head of Brexit advice at communications consultancy Edelman.

“It will be a delicate balancing act.”

A YouGov opinion poll on Friday revealed the shifting opinion May must adapt to. Not only was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn regarded as better prime ministerial material than her for the first time, but 58 per cent of respondents favoured prioritising trade over immigration, up from 53 per cent a year ago.

Corbyn has vowed to “try to force an early general election”, telling the left-wing newspaper the Daily Mirror that it was “ludicrous” to believe the Conservatives’ minority government could survive.

The House of Commons aside, May will still face a struggle in the House of Lords.

Draft laws generally start their progress in the Commons and - when they have been approved - then pass to the Lords, the upper house of Parliament where the Tories have no majority. Bills must pass both houses to become law.

Back in April, May told voters that beating opponents of Brexit - including those in the “unelected” Lords - was the key reason for calling the election in the first place. May based her gamble on a British constitutional understanding - known as the Salisbury Convention.

Under this, Lords agree not to block measures that a majority of elected members of Parliament in the Commons support, when those laws have been outlined first in the governing party’s election manifesto.

The premier’s allies now privately admit that her opponents in the Lords feel they don’t need to bow to the will of the elected chamber. With a minority government, pro-Europeans in the upper house think they can ignore the Salisbury rule.

Because of the election result, “the Salisbury Convention probably doesn’t apply,” said Dick Newby, leader of the pro-EU Liberal Democrat party in the upper house. Among peers “there’s a large majority that think Brexit is a bad idea,” and so they “could make Theresa May’s Brexit plans more difficult, because one of the things the Lords have is the power of delay, which of course is quite a big power at this point.”

The dilemma for May is that she doesn’t have much time given Britain will leave the EU on March 29, 2019. By then, she must try to negotiate an exit deal and Parliament must pass the necessary bills to convert thousands of pieces of EU legislation into British law.

Arguably the biggest blow to her battle with Parliament, however, was the resignation of George Bridges, the Brexit minister in charge of her policy in the House of Lords.

Bridges, 46, was regarded as a highly effective minister, popular with allies and opponents and highly rated inside the government for his ability to navigate the quirky politics of the upper chamber.

According to a person familiar with his thinking, Bridges, who has a young family, didn’t want to spend the next two years fighting what could become an impossible battle to win.

“We’ve had a general election where Theresa May has effectively lost her mandate for an extreme Brexit,” Keir Starmer, the main opposition Labour Party’s Brexit spokesman, said on Thursday.

“There is going to be increased pressure for the government to change, to put options back on the table.”

Reuters, Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse