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Theresa May

Theresa May holds ground in local elections but Brexit pressure mounts

Since taking office after the referendum vote to leave the EU in July 2016, May has balanced competing forces in her party by avoiding the most controversial decisions about Britain’s future

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 May, 2018, 8:19pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 May, 2018, 9:41pm

After a week in which her authority has been challenged from all sides over Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May was on Friday spared an election drubbing but faces intensifying pressure.

May’s Conservatives performed better than expected in Thursday’s local council elections in England, the first poll test since she called a snap general election last year and lost her parliamentary majority.

But the results do not change the balance of pro- and anti-Brexit forces in her own party and the wider House of Commons, which have been steadily turning the screw as key decisions on Britain’s future loom.

The result of the local elections, had they been bad, would have really piled on the pressure
Tim Bale, Queen Mary University of London

The European Union is expecting Britain to present its plan for new customs arrangements after Brexit before a June summit in Brussels, ahead of a hoped-for agreement on future trading ties by October.

London last year put forward two possible options to ease cross-border trade, but May’s preferred proposal has been rejected by the EU and, this week, by a majority of her own cabinet ministers.

Pro-European MPs meanwhile are pressing the prime minister to abandon altogether plans to leave the EU’s customs union, and are gathering numbers for Commons votes in the coming months that could force her hand.

“The result of the local elections, had they been bad, would have really piled on the pressure,” said Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London. “But they don’t change the parliamentary arithmetic and they don’t change what she is proposing in terms of the customs relationships with the EU.”

He added: “She’s not in any worse position, but the position she is in is still pretty nightmarish.”

Since taking office after the referendum vote to leave the EU in July 2016, May has balanced competing forces in her party by avoiding the most controversial decisions about Britain’s future.

But as Brexit approaches – Britain is on course to leave the bloc on March 29, 2019, followed by a 21-month transition period – she must take firm decisions that could cause a revolt on either side.

“The prime minister’s challenge used to be deciding which way to move. Now, she will be wondering if she can move in any direction at all,” wrote commentator James Forsyth of The Spectator magazine.

At a meeting this week of her senior ministers intended to thrash out the customs issue, May’s preferred option for a new “customs partnership” were reportedly rejected by most of them.

Her defeat came after a pro-Brexit grouping of up to 60 Conservative MPs warned the idea was unacceptable.

Brussels had already rejected as “magical thinking” the plan, which would involve Britain collecting EU tariffs on goods transitioning to the rest of the bloc, but charging its own on UK-destined products.

It has been described by critics as a bureaucratic nightmare.

If government cannot make this critical decision, then I think parliament is going to have to provide a real lead
Nicky Morgan, Tory MP

The second option, so-called “maximum facilitation”, would involve using technology to ease trade, but could require some infrastructure, which Britain has promised not to introduce on the Irish border. Officials admit they are now “refining” their plans.

MPs who fear the economic impact of looser ties with Britain’s biggest trade partner are meanwhile gaining confidence, and believe they have the parliamentary support to force the government to change tack.

The House of Lords has made a string of changes in recent weeks to a key Brexit bill, including on the customs union, which could cause trouble for May when they are debated in the Commons later this month.

MPs have also submitted amendments to two other pieces of legislation demanding ministers include the objective of a new customs union in their negotiations.

These bills have been delayed, prompting accusations that the government is trying to avoid a defeat.

“If government cannot make this critical decision, then I think parliament is going to have to provide a real lead,” pro-European Conservative lawmaker Nicky Morgan told London’s Evening Standard newspaper.