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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

‘Better Britain’ speech does not quell calls for PM to quit

May’s position was weakened after campaigning for the June 8 election on her personal ability to guide Britain through the Brexit process. Her two closest aides have quit and a senior party figure has reportedly described her as “dead in the water.”

Pondering her future? Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May after delivering a speech at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) in London on July 11, 2017. Matt Dunham / Reuters
Pondering her future? Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May after delivering a speech at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) in London on July 11, 2017. Matt Dunham / Reuters

LONDON // Theresa May faced continued questions over her future as the UK's prime minister despite using her first major speech since a disastrous election campaign to try to regain authority over her squabbling party.

As she set out her vision for a “better, fairer Britain”, former colleagues publicly debated her position after snap elections left her vulnerable at the head of a minority government before critical negotiations on leaving the European Union.

A year after she became prime minister, Mrs May said she remained determined to embark on a programme of reform in a largely uncontentious speech to mark the launch of a report aimed at improving the rights of some of the country’s worst-paid workers.

But she also sought to reassure business that any changes would avoid “overbearing regulation”, highlighting the delicate political balancing act she needs to perform push through vital legislation in the coming years.

“When I commissioned this report I led a majority government in the House of Commons and the reality I now face as prime minister is rather different,” she admitted on Tuesday.

Mrs May’s hold on power relies on a small Northern Irish party, which secured a £1 billion spending pledge to ensure its support. While she has been buffeted by criticisms from within her Conservative party no leadership challenge has yet materialised.

The London newspaper now edited by George Osborne, the former chancellor (finance minister), has said that Mrs May must quit with the only question being when. Some members of parliament have said she should stay until the end of the complex two-year Brexit negotiations.

Matthew Parris, a former Conservative MP and prominent newspaper columnist, on Tuesday said the prime minister should go as soon as possible with the UK’s Brexit negotiations in “terrible trouble” because of uncertainty over leadership of the party.

“The time we have left to negotiate Brexit is running out,” he told the BBC. “Nobody is in charge, everyone accepts that nobody is in charge and it cannot come too soon that someone challenges the prime minister.”

Mrs May’s position was weakened after campaigning for the June 8 election on her personal ability to guide Britain through the Brexit process. Her two closest aides have quit and the Conservative party’s former enforcer reportedly described her as “dead in the water” at a private dinner party.

Despite the open criticism of her position, nobody has so far come forward publicly to seek to dethrone her.

The favourite to replace her is David Davis, the minister responsible for negotiating Brexit, followed by the chancellor, Philip Hammond, who is seen as a safe pair of hands, and the charismatic but gaffe-prone foreign secretary Boris Johnson.

Former Conservative leader William Hague on Tuesday complained about a lack of party discipline and the public airing of grievances against Mrs May and counselled the “wise MP” to sit, wait and watch rather than rock the “very vulnerable boat”.

“Make those who aspire to be prime minister work, sweat, perform and show they really have what it takes,” he wrote in a Daily Telegraph column published on Tuesday.

In a further sign of weakness,in her speech, Mrs May called on opposition political parties to help the government to make policy.

“At this critical time in our history, we can either be timid or we can be bold,” she said. “We can play it safe or we can strike out with renewed courage and vigour making the case for our ideas and values and challenging our opponents to contribute, not just criticise.”

The planned legislative programme detailed at the opening of parliament last month was notable for the dominance of Brexit-related legislation and the absence of key pre-election pledges that were unlikely to secure enough support to pass into law.

Following a tough campaign and election aftermath, her choice of topic for a first major post-poll speech was conveniently uncontroversial for the prime minister, said Tim Knox, director of the right-leaning think tank the Centre for Policy Studies.

“It’s uncontentious, not overly party political and on the side of the small guy” he said.