Britain’s Conservatives Plunged Into Civil War
Pressure is growing on Prime Minister Theresa May to announce her intention to resign in the next few months.
Senior Conservatives told VOA it is only a matter of time before May, who’s scrambling to hang on to power, has to go.
They say she faces the choice between either agreeing to go quietly or facing an immediate leadership challenge, which will throw the party into an internecine war between those who want a sharp rupture with the European Union and those championing a so-called softer Brexit that would see Britain remaining inside Europe’s Single Market and accepting continued European migrants.
The country’s former finance minister, George Osbourne described the Prime Minister as a “dead woman walking.”
At least two members of her Cabinet — foreign minister Boris Johnson and the minister overseeing Brexit negotiations, David Davis — are already taking soundings to see if they have enough backing now to oust her, if she resists mounting calls for her to set a timetable for departure.
Other Conservative lawmakers, who are critical of May for calling a snap election that saw the party’s parliamentary majority wiped out at in last Thursday’s upset election, are already discussing other possible soft Brexit contenders to replace May, arguing there’s no longer a majority in the House of Commons for a sharp break with the EU.
They include Amber Rudd, the current interior minister, Philip Hammond, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives and a rising political star, who staked out her ground publicly at the weekend as the champion of a softer Brexit.
Her supporters say she is one of the few senior Tories able to connect to young voters. Labour’s better-than-expected electoral performance was largely due to massive backing from young voters angry over education cuts, university fees and Brexit.
Davidson urged Saturday the party to rethink its hard Brexit plans and raised the prospect of her new group of 13 Scottish Tory lawmakers torpedoing any parliamentary vote for a deal that would leave Britain outside the Single Market. Davidson said she would back a deal that prioritized the economy and free trade over restricting immigration.
Five fellow Cabinet members have already urged the populist Johnson to topple May as prime minister, if she isn’t prepared to announce a timetable for departure, reported newspapers Sunday. Johnson, the tousled-haired former London mayor, dismissed the reports as “tripe.” In a tweet, he said: “I am backing May. Let’s get on with the job.”
But Johnson, who has a history of being an ideological chameleon and might be able to finesse a deal between some of the party’s hard and soft Brexiters and position himself as the frontrunner in a leadership contest has coveted the top job ever since he left journalism to enter politics.
On Saturday, May’s two closest aides resigned — a precondition for continued support for May from some ministers. But that has left May increasingly isolated in the upper reaches of the government and their departure failed to curb the clamor of criticism from within her parliamentary party as well as from constituency leaders across the country.
They blame her personally for what many Conservatives say was the worst election campaign their party has mounted in living memory.
Calls for resignation
A survey of Tory supporters by the Conservative Home website found that two-thirds wanted May to announce her resignation immediately.
Only Tory fear that an abrupt departure by May could open the door to Labour to try to form a minority government is staying the hand of her possible executioners.
And Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose party secured 262 seats compared to the Conservatives’ 318 in the 650-seat parliament, has not given up hope of being able to do so.
He and his aides are preparing a program for government that they intend to present to the House of Commons next week. Labour lawmakers argue that if May is forced to resign, the Queen should turn to Corbyn to see if he’s able to secure sufficient backing from lawmakers in other opposition parties to set up his own minority government.
May’s efforts to secure a deal with Northern Ireland’s 10 Unionist lawmakers, who could give the Conservatives a working majority of 13 in the Commons, also appeared to be in doubt this weekend. Downing Street released Saturday a press statement saying May had secured a deal with the Unionists, only to have to withdrew the claim on Sunday, saying the press statement had been issued in error.
Among moderate Conservatives there is alarm about forming a Commons voting pact with the Democratic Unionists, who oppose same-sex marriage and abortion, and who have had ties in the past with Protestant paramilitaries.