May Faces Her Own Exit as Compromises Fall Flat

Anti-Brexit campaigners hold banners near Parliament in London on Wednesday. British Prime Minister Theresa May is under pressure to scrap a planned vote on her tattered Brexit blueprint and call an end to her embattled premiership. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

(CN) – “Desperate, deluded, doomed.”

In three words spread across its front page, the conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper on Wednesday morning summed up the state of play for embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May after she presented a “new Brexit deal” with compromises she hopes will win, at last, the support of the House of Commons.

But her offers – including allowing Parliament to hold a second referendum on Brexit if it passes her deal – fell flat and seemed to even cause her to lose support rather than increase it.

The drumbeat for her to step down only got louder after she used a speech on Tuesday to announce her proposals to find cross-party support. Some were calling her new offer a “last roll of the dice” and saw her in “check mate.” Her proposals backfired by angering members of her Conservative Party.

Meanwhile, the fallout from the Brexit impasse seems to only get worse for the United Kingdom. On Wednesday, the country was agonizing over announcements of the possible loss of 25,000 jobs due to the collapse of British Steel, the U.K.’s second-largest steel maker. Uncertainty over Brexit was seen as contributing to the company’s problems. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, May remained determined to get Parliament to vote for a fourth time in early June on her withdrawal agreement with the European Union, accompanied by her set of new proposals.

On Tuesday, May laid out a 10-step plan to sweeten her Brexit deal in the hope of winning over opponents, in particular those in the opposition Labour Party. She said the new deal would make sure Britain stays aligned to EU rules on the environment and workers’ rights and that Parliament would be allowed to vote on whether to hold a second referendum on Brexit, giving voters a final say over how and if the U.K. should leave the EU.

Her government and the EU spent about two years hammering out a comprehensive deal that allows the United Kingdom to leave the EU on terms that both sides consider agreeable.

But Parliament has rejected that deal three times. Members of Parliament are split between those who feel that it keeps the U.K. too closely aligned to the EU or not close enough. Many in Parliament want to scrap Brexit altogether, even though 52 percent of U.K. voters favored leaving the EU in a 2016 referendum.

Reaction to her speech was swift and negative.

In Parliament on Wednesday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn dismissed May’s new offer and called for a general election to break the Brexit deadlock.

“It is now clear the bold new deal the prime minister promised is little more than a repackaged version of her three-times rejected deal,” Corbyn said. “The rhetoric may have changed but the deal has not.”

He said May’s new offers did not go far enough to win Labour support, and he accused May of seeking to work with Labour only after her deal had been resoundingly rejected.

May is often criticized as acting more like a tunnel-vision bureaucrat who has lacked the political skills needed to bring the warring factions in the Brexit debate together. She has also been boxed in by those same warring factions. Her strategy until more recently was to seek to appease the right-wing of her Conservative Party whose members are keen on leaving the EU even if that means disrupting trade relations with Europe. But those same members have rejected her deal, calling it a betrayal of the Brexit vote because it keeps Britain too closely aligned with the EU.

Corbyn said Labour could not sign onto May’s deal now because she has only “days left” in Downing Street. He said Labour cannot trust the compromises she is offering would be upheld by the next Tory leader.

May reportedly has said she will resign if her deal is not passed in June. A contest within the Tories has begun to replace her, and it is possible that a much more pro-Brexit leader could take over.

“This government is too weak, too divided to get this country out of the mess they have created,” Corbyn said in calling for a general election.

He accused the Tories of wanting Brexit in order to strike free trade deals that would hurt the environment and workers.

“The Tory obsession is with striking trade deals with the likes of Donald Trump,” Corbyn said. “They prioritize chlorinated chicken, further [National Health Service] privatization and and deregulation over protecting supply chains and jobs in this country.”

May looked increasingly isolated Wednesday as she sat in Parliament to respond to parliamentarians’ tough questions. On Wednesdays, prime ministers are grilled in Parliament. As the session carried on, the Conservative benches grew noticeably empty and quiet even as May stayed on to rebuff the opposition.

On Wednesday, speculation was rife in the British media that May might even step down by the end of the day.

In her speech on Tuesday, May seemed to acknowledge that delivering Brexit was much harder than she had expected.

“I knew delivering Brexit was not going to be simple or straightforward,” she said in her speech, which was made from within the London headquarters of PricewaterhouseCoopers, an international auditing firm.

“The challenge of taking Brexit from the simplicity of the choice on the ballot paper to the complexity of resetting the country’s relationship with 27 of its nearest neighbors was always going to be huge,” she said.

She made the speech with the words “Seeking common ground in Parliament” written on the backdrop behind her.

She urged Parliament to back her deal and get the U.K. out of the Brexit chaos. She said her deal was the best solution to both leave the EU while also safeguarding the U.K. economy.

“Look at what this debate is doing to our politics. Extending it for months more, perhaps indefinitely, risks opening the door to a nightmare future of permanently polarized politics,” she said.

To those seeking to revoke the referendum results, she warned that trust in democracy would be damaged if Britain did not leave the EU.

She said her deal allows Britain to take control of its laws and government away from EU courts and decision-makers, ends the big payments Britain makes to be an EU member, gives Britain control over immigration and allows it to set its own policies for fisheries and agriculture.

“It is practical, it is responsible, it is deliverable and right now it is slipping away from us,” she said.

“We are making a new offer to find common ground in Parliament; that is the only way to deliver Brexit,” she said. “I have compromised; now I ask you to compromise too.”

But few in Parliament, it seemed, were in a mood to compromise with such a weakened prime minister.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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