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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Brexit countdown: UK’s PM tours country with one year to go until EU exit

Theresa May will visit England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in one day

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May has lunch with farmers at Fairview Farm in Bangor, Northern Ireland. Stefan Rousseau/ Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May has lunch with farmers at Fairview Farm in Bangor, Northern Ireland. Stefan Rousseau/ Reuters

Theresa May has begun a tour of the UK exactly one year until Britain leaves the European Union, vowing to keep the country “united”.

The prime minister will visit England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in one day in attempt to heal divisions in a country which narrowly voted for Brexit.

Mrs May said she had an “absolute responsibility to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom as a whole” ahead of the trip.

Addressing voters, she said the UK “will thrive as a strong and united country that works for everyone, no matter whether you voted Leave or Remain".

Back in London, former prime minister and Remain campaigner Tony Blair said Brexit could be stopped.

"I think it's more likely we can stop it now than a few months ago," he told BBC radio.

Mr Blair said members of parliament, who will be offered a final vote on the deal, should make a decision when the terms of the deal agreed by the government are outlined in the autumn.

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Mrs May’s tour began in Ayrshire, Scotland, where she visited a textile factory before moving on to a parent and toddler group in Newcastle, northeast England and lunch with farmers in Bangor, Northern Ireland. Later Mrs May met businesses in Barry, south Wales and ended the tour in west London, where she spoke with Polish citizens.

Speaking in Scotland, Mrs May said Brexit would offer "real opportunities" across the UK.

"I want to see us coming together, the four nations across the United Kingdom we have a very a strong union, that is in our interests and it is in our interests to come together and really seize these opportunities for the future," she said.

Part of Mrs May's task in the coming 12 months will be to convince voters in devolved areas such as Scotland and Wales that there will be no "power grab" by Westminster after Brexit.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May meets a attendees at a local parent and toddler group at Heddon-On-the-Wall, St Andrew's Church of England Primary School in Newcastle, north east England. Stefan Rousseau/ AFP Photo
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May meets a attendees at a local parent and toddler group at Heddon-On-the-Wall, St Andrew's Church of England Primary School in Newcastle, north east England. Stefan Rousseau/ AFP Photo

"Let's be clear, there is no power grab, we are not taking back any of the powers that are currently devolved to the Scottish government," she said.

"Indeed the Scottish government will be receiving more powers as a result of us leaving the European Union."

But Carwyn Jones, First Minister of the Welsh Assembly, said that the prime minister did not have a clear plan for a UK-EU relationship after the "transition period" ends.

The UK is set to enter a 21-month transition period once it leaves the EU in March 2019 during which most of the current agreements with the bloc will continue.

Mr Jones said on the eve of the tour that while the transition period agreed earlier this month was "welcome" it was unclear what the UK would be transitioning to.

"Long-term uncertainty has not disappeared, the shape of our trade relationship remains unclear and this is bad for business and investment," he said.

Trade minister Liam Fox on Thursday said the transition period would be unlikely to continue after 2020.

He told BBC radio: "We understand that we need to get the British public's support and that an extension would not be popular."

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May has lunch with farmers at Fairview Farm in Bangor, Northern Ireland. Stefan Rousseau/ Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May has lunch with farmers at Fairview Farm in Bangor, Northern Ireland. Stefan Rousseau/ Reuters

Mrs May will not be meeting politicians during the whistle stop tour with Downing Street saying the purpose of the trip was to meet ordinary people and businesses.

Michelle O'Neill, leader of Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland Assembly, said it was "no surprise" the prime minister had chosen not to meet with parties in the Assembly, given that the majority of representatives had voted to stay in the EU.

Mrs O'Neill said: "These are the voices that Theresa May continues to ignore as she and the DUP show blatant contempt for the cross-community majority here who voted to remain."

The Irish border also remains an unresolved issue as the UK and the EU are split over how to avoid a hard border after Brexit.

During her visit to a farm outside Bangor, Mrs May said she wanted to hear from the people of Northern Ireland about what Brexit means to them.

The Conservative leader discussed farmers' concerns about how the UK leaving the bloc would impact upon the flow of goods across the Irish border.

Reaffirming her commitment to avoiding a hard border, Mrs May said: "The border is used daily for travel and trade, but it also forms a hugely important part of British and Irish identities, rooted in generations of family history - and this is something that needs to be protected."