British Prime Minister Theresa May received a show of support from her Conservative Party on Wednesday at a meeting in parliament, shifting the focus away from talk of an imminent leadership challenge over her Brexit strategy.
May has angered both supporters of Brexit and pro-EU lawmakers since failing to clinch a deal at an EU summit last week by raising the possibility of extending a post-Brexit transition period to help ease the deadlocked negotiations.
But her arrival at the packed meeting was greeted with cheers and some of those who heard her speak said it had gone well. Other attendees complained the event had been heavily stage managed to distract from their dissatisfaction.
May had asked to address the powerful “1922 Committee” after persistent criticism over the direction of the Brexit talks.
“She’s brilliantly united the party … well at least for tonight,” said one pro-Brexit lawmaker who attended the meeting.
With just over five months to go until Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU on March 29, May’s Brexit negotiations have stalled over a disagreement on a fallback plan for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Many business leaders and investors fear internal party politics could scupper an agreement, thrusting the world’s fifth largest economy into a “no-deal” Brexit they say would spook markets and clog up the arteries of trade.
Indeed, sterling has already weakened in recent days over the prospect of a leadership challenge.
“People spoke very freely to her about their concerns but a lot of people came back to the fact that they really wanted her to realise that they backed her in delivering for the country and for government,” said former interior minister Amber Rudd as she left the meeting.
An Ipsos MORI poll on Wednesday showed a record 78 percent of voters lacked confidence in May to get a good deal from Brussels, compared with 70 percent in September.
“And yet, the public don’t put all the blame at her door – and nor is there much evidence that they would have much more confidence in anyone else,” said Gideon Skinner, head of political research at Ipsos MORI.
Many Conservative Party lawmakers are wary of toppling a leader on the eve of Britain’s most significant political and economic move since World War Two. Many also fear an election could bring the opposition Labour Party into power.
“There is an appetite among the majority of the party to pull together because the risks are too high,” said another lawmaker who attended the meeting but spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Ever since losing her party its majority in parliament with a botched bet on a 2017 snap election, May has faced talk of a leadership challenge.
A vote of no-confidence in May would be triggered if 48 Conservative lawmakers submit letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee to demand such a vote.
The number of letters held by the committee chairman is not made public. The Sunday Times newspaper said 46 had now been sent and the BBC’s political editor said on Monday that the 48 number had not yet been reached.
But, with the Brexit clock ticking down and little sign of a plan to satisfy her critics, there was a change of tone in the British media this week, upping the ante before the meeting.
Some newspapers carried unusually bloodthirsty language by unidentified opponents. One said May was entering “the killing zone”, while another said May should “bring her own noose” to the meeting.
Lawmakers said that language crossed a line for many Conservatives and had been a point of common concern for those speaking in the meeting.