Theresa May Brexit plan gets little popular support
LONDON There are no stadiums full of placard-waving supporters, no giant street rallies for British Prime Minister Theresa May these days as she makes a last-ditch effort to sell her Brexit deal to guide her country’s departure from the European Union.
Instead, the beleaguered leader has to make do with a lackluster welcome and the prospect that her country will crash out of the EU without a map for the way forward.
Case in point: a leather factory near Glasgow last week, where workers largely carried on with their duties in the background as Mrs. May conducted interviews on camera. The workers were more interested in finishing their shifts than listening to the prime minister sell her vision of how the country will navigate its momentous divorce from the EU in a little more than three months.
Facing daunting odds in Parliament, the Conservative prime minister hit the road last week on a two-day trip through the Celtic countries of the United Kingdom, starting at a winter fair in Wales, followed by a university in Northern Ireland and finishing at a factory in Scotland. But analysts say the tour only underscored the political problem of her compromise deal: The many warring sides of the Brexit battle finally found common ground in their dislike for her handiwork.
On the hustings and in Parliament, Mrs. May’s strategy to date has been to brazen it out, projecting an air of confidence in the face of widespread doubts. She was at it again this week, parrying opposition complaints in Parliament and refusing even to speculate on her own future should her Brexit deal go down to defeat.
“I’m focusing on ... getting that vote and getting the vote over the line,” she told members of Parliament.
But as the House of Commons Wednesday conducted the second of five full days of debate on her Brexit plan, political prognosticators and punters say the odds are strongly against Mrs. May, with much of the commentary focused on what comes next when not if her plan is voted down.
Parliament isn’t making her job any easier in the run-up to the vote. In a U.K. parliamentary voting first, a majority of members said Tuesday that the government is in contempt of Parliament for refusing to publish the full legal advice from the country’s top law officer about Brexit.
The House of Commons voted 311-293 in favor of a motion by opposition parties, The Associated Press reported, and the government quickly said it would now publish the entire analysis.
Mrs. May hasn’t eased up on her sales pitch, even though forecasters say she is far short of the majority she needs in a parliamentary showdown set for Dec. 11.
Despite the government’s own forecasts, the prime minister told the Scottish factory workers that her deal would be a boon for the economy. “It’s a deal that is good for Scottish employers and will protect jobs,” she said.
But many in the crowd were not buying what she was selling.
“We’re in a bad place. The economic forecasts suggest we’re not going to be better off with this Brexit deal or any other,” said Thomas Hills, 29, a chemical engineer from North Yorkshire.
If Mrs. May’s proposed divorce deal with the EU is approved, “a lot of people will be left feeling angry,” said Tim Oliver, an analyst at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“But then,” he added, “a lot of people will be left feeling angry whatever course is taken.”
Mrs. May’s unusual whistle-stop tour was designed to whip up enthusiasm ahead of the parliamentary vote, but at best she appears to have gained commiseration rather than fervent support.
Residents in the town of Newry in Northern Ireland, which sits near the border with the Republic of Ireland, voted to remain in the EU. Some told The Guardian newspaper of their sympathy for the prime minister even though they don’t like her deal.
“It means we’d still be governed by European law. And the backstop could extend to infinity and beyond. We’d be better off with no deal,” said Phil Wallace, 52, a scaffolding contractor in Northern Ireland who supports Brexit. “But I recognize she didn’t have an easy job.”
Some believe that getting the sympathy vote is part of Mrs. May’s strategy, especially after the lukewarm welcome she received on the cheerleading Brexit tour. Her best hope, pundits say, is to persuade just enough members of Parliament that her deal with the EU is the worst she could offer except for every other conceivable alternative.
“She is hoping to secure respect for her stoicism in seeing this through. She’s faced numerous resignations, critics, attacks, and failed leadership challenges. Yet she plods on,” said Mr. Oliver.
Mrs. May’s supporters said she should not be underestimated and that her arguments are making headway as the showdown looms.
“The prime minister has been changing the public mood. If you look at what’s been happening in polling, there’s clearly a shift there,” Liam Fox, secretary of state for international trade, told the Reuters news agency late last week.
But while trying to win hearts and minds out on the hustings, Mrs. May still faces an uphill battle where it counts: in the House of Commons.
Leaders of the opposition Labor Party say they will vote against the deal, as will the smaller Scottish Nationalist Party and the Liberal Democrats, who want the U.K. to have a second referendum and would much rather stay in the EU.
To make matters worse, the pro-Brexit Northern Ireland-based Democratic Unionist Party which props up Mrs. May’s minority government in Parliament is also refusing to back the deal. Close to 100 lawmakers from both wings of the prime minster’s Conservative Party have also said they will vote against her.
This means unless the prime minister can change some minds that it’s almost impossible for Mrs. May’s bill to advance from the House of Commons to the House of Lords, said Mr. Oliver. “The parliamentary arithmetic is too much against it.”
Meanwhile, the arrangement to be put to a vote Dec. 11 is not even the final Brexit battle. The deal is just the terms by which the U.K. will leave the European Union, agreeing to a divorce bill for the U.K. of approximately $49 billion and setting rules for trade and transportation at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the EU.
Mrs. May has to get past that hurdle just to begin the debate on the future relationship between London and Brussels.
Mrs. May’s deal means the U.K. would leave the EU in March as planned and enter a transition period. During the transition stage, the U.K. and EU would negotiate their future relationship, including trade.
“This is in itself a minefield that will drag on and which people in the U.K. have few, if any, ideas about,” said Mr. Oliver.
President Trump, who has had a prickly relationship at times with the prime minister, did Mrs. May no favors last week by expressing open concern that her deal could leave Britain tied too closely to the EU’s tariff rules to make its own trade deals with other countries such as the United States.
Mrs. May denies this. But even some of Mr. Trump’s fiercest critics in the U.K. acknowledge that he has a point.
The disdain for what Mrs. May has brought back from Brussels extends beyond the halls of power in Westminster. According to polling company YouGov, the majority of Britons, regardless of their political persuasion, say the proposed Brexit deal does not respect the result of the 2016 national referendum, in which British voters narrowly voted to leave the EU.
But the deal’s unpopularity across the political spectrum does not necessarily translate into a desire for Mrs. May to resign.
According to the same poll, just 27 percent of Britons think a different Conservative prime minister could achieve a better deal, and just 19 percent think a theoretical Labor prime minister would fare better.
Mrs. May has even earned some grudging respect for her drive to carry on despite the odds and the terrible hand she has been dealt.
“Just because someone is bad, you can’t replace them with nothing,” said Patrick Mason, 40, a software engineer from London. “Show me an alternative Conservative or Labor candidate who could actually slot in and do it instead. There’s no one else.”