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Brexit

With credibility ‘shot to pieces’, British Prime Minister Theresa May is set to hit reset with new vision for Brexit

After the disastrous election result last month, the UK leader is said to relaunch strategy to focus on working class

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 July, 2017, 9:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 July, 2017, 9:03pm

British Prime Minister Theresa May is planning to relaunch her political mission to deliver Brexit and help ordinary working people, as she tries to put last month’s disastrous election result behind her, according to a senior government official.

May is lining up significant interventions in the next week, including a major speech, setting out her commitment to social and economic reform that will make Britain’s exit from the European Union a success, the person said on condition of anonymity because the plans are not public.

The reboot of May’s premiership comes after the electoral fiasco put her under intense scrutiny, with many in her own team convinced she must be replaced sooner or later. By losing the government’s majority, she has reopened the debate over how Brexit should unfold, with some of her own most senior Conservative ministers now emboldened to disagree with her.

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May’s dismal performance also prompted a surge in support for her main rival, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, and sparked speculation about how long she can survive as prime minister. Tories are furious at how she squandered a 20-point lead with the latest YouGov poll showing Labour ahead by 8 percentage points.

The official said the premier had ordered the fightback to try to regain the upper hand. At the Group of 20 summit of leaders, May insisted she would battle on and still be prime minister in a year’s time.

Asked about her election failure she told the BBC in Hamburg, Germany, that “there’s two ways the government can react to that: We can be very timid and sit back or we can be bold and that’s what we are going to be”.

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The problem is that voters still believe May’s “credibility is shot to pieces” and her “authority is draining away,” according to Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “It’s doubtful she can restore either by some kind of relaunch – indeed, it could even make her look more desperate than she already is.”

To add to her woes, the EU is doubling-down on its hardline stance toward Britain and there is deadlock over a deal to protect the rights of 4 million citizens as the titans of industry clamour for greater clarity on Brexit.

May faces public calls from Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond for a Brexit deal that keeps Britain close to the EU market, warning “it would be madness” to reject trade ties. In Brussels, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, sent the message to forget her dream of a “frictionless” trade deal and that the road to divorce will be hard.

At the same time, opposition politicians are plotting to rip up May’s draft law that will repeal the UK’s membership in the EU and set a new legal framework for the country after it withdraws from the bloc. That signature piece of legislation will hit parliament next week.

There is frustration among May’s close team inside her Downing Street office that the government has been on the back foot politically since the election, according to the official.

This is partly because the government’s impartial civil servants have been too influential in recent weeks, and it is time for May to get political again, the official said.

There are signs her government is seeking a fresh start. For example, often-neglected business leaders got some face time with Brexit Secretary David Davis at a lush countryside retreat.

It was an outreach that was appreciated by HSBC Holdings Plc Chairman Douglas Flint, who was among the VIP guests.

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“It was a highly welcome and constructive engagement with government,” he said. “The discussions benefited from the broad range of interests participating and a very open framework, which encouraged very active dialogue around the key issues. It was very worthwhile.”

May is also under pressure to show she cares about Britain’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens after a flat-footed response to the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed at least 80 people in a London apartment block last month.

Corbyn’s populist – and electorally popular – anti-austerity agenda prompted some of May’s own party to demand a softening of her plans for fiscal restraint, alongside calls to increase the pay of firefighters, police, nurses and teachers.

Next week, May will cast herself once again as the reformer who wants to challenge social injustices and rebalance the economy in a way that responds to the call for radical change that she believes drove last year’s referendum vote for Brexit, the official said.

May acknowledges the election result wasn’t as good as she’d hoped but will insist that her mission for governing Britain in the interests of people who are not wealthy is as important and urgent as ever, the official said.

Whether she can persuade her own party to back her vision is another matter.

“Most Tories were never really sold on her social and economic agenda even before her disastrous election campaign,” said Bale. “The idea that it’ll make Brexit work better seems a little far-fetched in view of the rather more immediate challenges posed by leaving the EU.”