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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Theresa May fires back at her mutinous party over Brexit

British prime minister has come under unrelenting attack in the closing stages of EU exit talks

Theresa May makes a statement to the House of Commons about the European Council summit. AP
Theresa May makes a statement to the House of Commons about the European Council summit. AP

Britain’s beleaguered prime minister appealed to her increasingly mutinous party on Monday to back her Brexit strategy in the face of deep divisions at home and a tough negotiating stance from the EU.

Theresa May told a raucous session of parliament that she was not afraid of strong criticism while negotiating more agreeable terms for Britain’s exit from the European Union in March.

“If doing those things means I get difficult days in Brussels, then so be it,” she said over the din of jeers from the opposition as well as some members of her own party.

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“The Brexit talks are not about my interests. They are about the national interest – and the interests of the whole of our United Kingdom.”

Mrs May has come under unrelenting attack in the closing stages of Brexit talks that still cannot find a suitable way to keep the EU-UK border open between Ireland and British-administered North Ireland.

She returned from a Brussels summit last week without progress and is facing rumours of an imminent leadership challenge from within her party’s most staunch pro-Brexit wing.

One newspaper quoted an unnamed MP saying Mrs May was entering “the killing zone”.

Another said: “The moment is coming when the knife gets heated, stuck in her front and twisted.”

In parliament, Mrs May measured her words carefully as she took on her most vitriolic critics.

“I do think that it is important that we all consider the language that we use, those of us in public life,” she said.

“The Brexit talks are not about me or my personal fortunes,” she said.

“They’re about the national interest – and that means making the right choices, not the easy ones.”

The graphic nature of the attacks appeared to unsettle even some of Mrs May’s biggest critics.

Yvette Cooper of the opposition Labour Party denounced the “violent, dehumanising and frankly misogynistic language”.

But nearly every MP’s disapproval of the quotes was followed by condemnation of Mrs May’s handling of the negotiations.

“This government is terminally incompetent and hamstrung by its own divisions,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said.

Mrs May had also come under fire in parliament on Monday.

Some MPs in her own party criticised her for being open to the idea of extending until 2021 the post-Brexit transition period in which the details of future trade terms are to be ironed out.

Others in Labour said Mrs May should choose much closer permanent relations with the bloc.

And still others in Labour urged her to respect the wishes of hundreds of thousands of people who turned out in London on Saturday demanding a second Brexit referendum.

Stark differences also remain between Mrs May and Brussels over key issues.

The terms under which Mrs May is ready to extend the post-Brexit transition period are not acceptable to Brussels.

The EU also wants to keep Northern Ireland aligned with its customs rules and regulations, while the transition talks try to remove the need for frontier checks.

Mrs May flatly rejected this in a rare article published in the mass-selling The Sun tabloid.

“I’ve been very clear that this must be achieved without creating any kind of border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK,” she wrote.

Mrs May’s Northern Irish allies in the Democratic Unionist Party have already raised the stakes by threatening to vote against next week’s budget if the deal results in any special status for the province.

A group of Eurosceptics said up to 41 Conservative MPs could this week also back an attempt to enshrine the pledge on Northern Ireland into law.

An amendment to an existing bill would make it impossible to introduce “any trade or regulatory barriers” between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain without agreement by the province’s assembly.

The assembly has not sat since January 2017 and the DUP would be likely to block any such approval.