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Embattled at Home, Theresa May Now Faces Tricky Brexit Talks

Posted by hkarner - 20. Juni 2017

Date: 18-06-2017
Source: The Wall Street Journal

After a weaker-than-expected election, U.K. prime minister is also under pressure over London tower fire

British Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband, Philip,

LONDON—A day before negotiations between the U.K. and the European Union begin, Prime Minister Theresa May faced a ballooning crisis at home, with critics accusing her of fumbling the government’s response to a London apartment tower fire that left at least 58 people dead.

Mrs. May, already weakened by an election setback less than two weeks ago, over the weekend pledged to make more funding available to victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, after saying the government’s initial response was “not good enough.” On the back of a string of government policy reversals, Mrs. May heads into the talks with plummeting public support amid questions about her Brexit strategy.

Keir Starmer, the Brexit spokesman for the main opposition Labour Party, said Mrs. May’s diminished standing and her approach to negotiations has put the U.K. in the “worst possible starting position.”

“I think the prime minister has got us into a complete mess,” Mr. Starmer told the British Broadcasting Corp., saying she has alienated Britain’s allies in Europe and weakened its position with the EU. “She’s got no mandate here, and she’s got no authority abroad.”
Criticism over Mrs. May’s response to the fire, including her initial refusal to meet residents of the tower amid security concerns, has cast further doubt about how long she can continue as leader, after losing her parliamentary majority. She said a public inquiry would answer urgent questions around how the fire spread so quickly and why persistent warnings by residents of the public housing building’s fire hazards were ignored.

Protesters march to Downing Street, the official residence of Prime Minister Theresa May, on Saturday.

In three months, Mrs. May has gone from being one of the country’s most popular leaders in decades to approval ratings of minus 34 percentage points, according to a YouGov PLC poll taken before the fire, a sign of the extent to which this month’s election damaged her and her Conservative Party.

The election result has emboldened pro-EU lawmakers, who are pressuring Treasury chief Philip Hammond to champion a Brexit that would maintain as close as possible ties to the EU. Mr. Hammond, who supported remaining in the EU ahead of last year’s referendum, told ITV News on Sunday that the U.K. wanted British exporters to be able to trade with Europe in a way they can now, but denied speculation that the election’s inconclusive results might soften Britain’s negotiating stance.

He said the U.K. will definitely leave the EU’s single trading market and customs union, which applies a common external tariff across all member states. He sidestepped a question about how long Mrs. May could stay on as prime minister, saying the country needed “a period of calm.”

The election exposed the deep divisions within the U.K. over Brexit and Mrs. May’s strategy. A Survation PLC poll, published over the weekend, showed that in light of the election result, 47% of people wanted to stay in the single market and customs union, compared with 36% who wanted to leave. The rest didn’t know.

Talks between the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionists, a small Northern Irish party, are ongoing. Mrs. May wants to secure a loose alliance with the mostly Protestant, pro-British party to prop up her minority government.

A key test for Mrs. May will come Wednesday, when she is expected to lay out her legislative agenda for a parliamentary vote. A senior Conservative lawmaker said Mrs. May’s missteps over recent days have further hurt her standing in the party, but that fellow members of Parliament wanted stability and that there is little appetite for a leadership change. “Nobody wants to be involved in an internal squabble,” he said.

Anand Menon, political professor at King’s College London, said a leadership challenge would add to the chaos of the party and take up time and resources that are needed for Brexit negotiations. “But if she keeps hemorrhaging respectability and support they’ll have no choice,” Mr. Anand said.

He said that while there is speculation that the election results could soften the U.K.’s Brexit negotiating aims, the safest course for the party is to keep the plan as it is. “At this point, if we reopen the issues and have a debate about it, it will be fatal for the government.”

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