British Prime Minister Theresa May won the backing of two senior ministers on Friday as she battled to defend her much-criticised draft divorce deal with the European Union as calls grew for a vote of no confidence in her leadership.
More than two years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, it is still unclear how, on what terms or even if it will leave the EU as planned on March 29, 2019.
May, who won the top job in the turmoil that followed the 2016 referendum, on Tuesday announced she had agreed a Brexit deal which ensured the United Kingdom left the world’s biggest trading bloc in the smoothest way possible.
But Brexit minister Dominic Raab resigned on Thursday over her deal, sending the pound tumbling, followed by a number of other colleagues. Other mutinous lawmakers in her party have openly spoken of ousting her and said bluntly that the Brexit deal would not pass parliament.
May, who has defiantly vowed to stay on as prime minister, spoke in a radio phone-in show to defend her deal and was asked by a caller on LBC radio to “respectfully stand down”. She did not immediately address that part of the caller’s question.
Influential eurosceptic Conservative lawmaker Steve Baker said rebels in May’s party were close to the threshold which would trigger a confidence vote.
Such a vote must take place when 48 Conservatives submit letters to the party’s so-called 1922 committee.
“What’s happened is people have been ringing me and telling me that they are putting their letters in … and I think we’re probably not far off,” said Baker, a key figure in the Brexit-backing wing of May’s party.
“I think it probably is imminent, yes,” he told BBC TV.
However in a boost to May, Michael Gove, 51, the most prominent Brexit-supporting minister, gave his backing to her, saying he would stay on in government as environment minister.
Asked if he had confidence in May, Gove, who torpedoed former foreign minister Boris Johnson’s leadership bid in 2016, told reporters: “I absolutely do.”
“I think it’s absolutely vital that we focus on getting the right deal in the future, and making sure that in the areas that matter so much to the British people we can get a good outcome.”
MAY WOULD “DECISIVELY WIN” CONFIDENCE VOTE
Trade minister Liam Fox, another leading Brexit supporter, also backed her, while her de facto deputy David Lidington said she would win a vote of no confidence, in which she would need a simple majority of the total votes cast.
“If those letters were to go in, I think that she would win any such vote decisively, and she’d deserve to do so,” Lidington said in a broadcast clip. “The national interest, I think, says that we should rally in her support.”
Sterling, which has see-sawed on Brexit news since the referendum, was up half a cent against the dollar at $1.2837 on Friday.
Brexit will pitch the world’s fifth largest economy into the unknown. Many fear it will divide the West as it grapples with both the unconventional U.S. presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.
Jo Johnson, who resigned as a minister last week, said the situation marked the worst failure of statesmanship since the 1956 Suez canal crisis, when Britain was forced by the United States to withdraw its troops from Egypt.
Amid the turmoil the ultimate outcome remains uncertain.
Scenarios include May’s deal ultimately winning approval; May losing her job; Britain leaving the bloc with no agreement; or even another referendum.
A snap poll by Survation of 1,070 voters for the Daily Mail newspaper found 49 percent of respondents opposed the deal and just 27 percent backed it.
To leave the EU on the terms of her deal, May would need to get the backing of about 320 of parliament’s 650 lawmakers. The deal is due to be discussed at an EU summit on Nov. 25.
Politicians, officials and diplomats in London openly questioned how long May had left as speculation swirled around London that a leadership challenge could come soon.
By seeking to preserve the closest possible ties with the EU, May has upset her party’s many advocates of a clean break, and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up her minority government.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that the DUP had demanded May be replaced as prime minister.
“They’ve raised some questions with us, they’ve raised some concerns with us and yes we are looking at those,” May said. “We are still working with the DUP.”
NIGHTMARE FOR BUSINESS?
The EU and Britain need an agreement to keep trade flowing between the world’s biggest trading bloc and the United Kingdom, home to the biggest international financial centre.
May said the threat of a no deal Brexit was personal as she is Type 1 diabetic: “I depend on insulin every day. My insulin is produced by a country elsewhere in the European Union.”
May’s spokeswoman said there had been strong business support for her draft deal but British aero-engine maker Rolls-Royce was continuing with its no-deal contingency plans.
The plans include “buffer stocks so that we have all the logistical capacity that we need to carry on running our business,” said Chief Executive Warren East.
Proponents of closer relations with the EU in her own party and the Labour opposition say the deal squanders the advantages of membership for little gain. Supporters of Brexit say that while the divorce might bring some short-term instability, in the longer term it will allow the United Kingdom to thrive.