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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

British PM heads to Brussels after bruising challenge to leadership

Theresa May leaves behind one feud in London for another in Brussels over future payments to Nato

Donald Trump, pictured on July 10, 2018, has claimed the UK is in turmoil over the Brexit resignations. Bloomberg
Donald Trump, pictured on July 10, 2018, has claimed the UK is in turmoil over the Brexit resignations. Bloomberg

If British Prime Minister Theresa May had hoped to leave domestic Brexit woes behind her as she prepares for a fresh feud in Brussels over the future of Nato, she was swiftly disabused by United States President Donald Trump.

After 24 hours in which Mrs May appeared to have staunched the bleeding, after two senior ministers left her wounded government, Mr Trump weighed in with praise for Boris Johnson – the man who quit as foreign secretary on Monday and could yet stand against her in any leadership challenge.

Mr Trump said that the UK was in “turmoil” but suggested that he might speak with Mr Johnson, who left his job with a savage letter which suggested the “Brexit dream was dying” and that the UK was heading for the status of an EU colony.

The US president said that it was “up to the people” to decide if Mrs May should remain in power, in a lukewarm endorsement of her position. “Boris Johnson is a friend of mine,” said Mr Trump, as he prepared to leave for Europe and a four-day visit to the UK. “He’s been very, very nice to me, very supportive. Maybe I’ll speak to him when I get over there.”

The political crisis was triggered by the departure on Sunday of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, who had been partially sidelined after the premier took charge of the Brexit programme in conjunction with senior civil servant Oliver Robbins. His resignation was followed by that of Mr Johnson, the first time since 1982 that two Cabinet ministers quit within 24 hours.

Mrs May appeared to have limited the rebellion on Tuesday after swiftly replacing the two rebellious ministers and securing the backing of the most likely opponents to her plan. They included Michael Gove who once stood on a joint “dream ticket” with Mr Johnson in an aborted leadership bid in 2016. Mr Gove said he backed Mrs May’s plans “100 per cent”. Two further junior members of the government left on Wednesday, citing discontent with the deal thrashed out last week.

In a tweet designed to show she had not been knocked off course, Mrs May said: “Productive Cabinet meeting this morning – looking ahead to a busy week. And sending our best wishes to England for tomorrow!” in a reference to the national football team's World Cup semi-final against Croatia.

But as she prepared to leave the country, mutinous backbenchers spoke of “betrayal” over her proposals amid private threats to trigger the months-long process to dump her as leader before the official departure date of March 29, 2019.

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Read more:

UK PM vows to contest any leadership challenge after Brexit resignations

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Any attempt to oust Mrs May would require letters from 48 politicians from her party to trigger the process. Commentators said on Tuesday that plotters were wary of taking that step, with time running out for talks with the EU and fears that the UK could leave without any deal in place, a situation that would likely have a devastating economic impact.

“If the required 48 members sign what they hope will be her death warrant, they could find that no one is brave or competent enough to execute it,” commentator Charles Moore wrote in the Brexit-backing Daily Telegraph newspaper on Tuesday.

In a meeting with her party late Monday, Mrs May raised the prospect that failure to back her could see the collapse of her government and give the left-wing opposition Labour party a route into power.

Former leader Michael Howard said a bid to oust Mrs May would be “extremely foolish and extremely ill-advised”.

He told the BBC that “good sense seems to be breaking out” as a string of supportive ministers – including the new foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt – publicly backed Mrs May.

Nervousness over Mrs May’s position has been compounded as Britain’s relations with Europe have been instrumental in the departures of the previous three British prime ministers from her party.

Her position has echoes with the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, who stood down in 1990 after two senior Cabinet ministers left because of her hardline policy towards Europe and disagreements over the influence of a senior adviser.

Her successor John Major endured long-running battles with the Eurosceptic wing of his party throughout his seven-year leadership.

The opposition from within his party grew so intense that he stepped down in 1995 to re-fight for the leadership, urging his critics to "put up or shut up".

He was re-elected after defeating John Redwood. Riven with infighting, the party lost heavily to Tony Blair’s Labour party two years later, ushering in a period of 13 years in opposition. David Cameron then quit as Conservative prime minister after losing the 2016 Brexit referendum that he had called in an attempt to secure the backing of Brexiteers within his party.

Mr Redwood, who remains an MP, said that he had not sent a letter to try to oust Mrs May but has called for changes to her plan which would lead to a cleaner break from the European Union.