UK leadership challenge rumours return before Brexit talks
Theresa May is under pressure from feuding factions within her party as senior ministers draw up their negotiating strategy
Fresh uncertainty surrounded the leadership of British premier Theresa May on Sunday as tensions within her ruling party were laid bare before the start of a new round of Brexit talks between Britain and the European Union.
Senior ministers were due to meet this week to thrash out their negotiating strategy amid rumours of a leadership challenge from hardliners who are pushing for a clean break from the EU even if leads to trade barriers with the world’s largest trading bloc.
Allies of Mrs May sought to play down any discontent on Sunday following claims that parts of the party were pushing for her charismatic if gaffe-prone foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, to become leader of the party if she was forced out.
Mrs May is being forced to mediate between a group of hardline Brexiteers who want to end all links with the EU and those who want to keep Britain's economy closely aligned to the 28-nation trading bloc despite having no influence over decision-making.
Her leadership has been under scrutiny since a disastrous decision to call elections in 2017 aimed at bolstering her position before the Brexit talks, but left her at the head of a minority government that relies on a small Irish party to pass legislation.
Challenges to her leadership died down after she navigated her government through the first stage of Brexit talks but have flared again following amid debate over whether she wants to keep Britain in the EU's tariff-free customs union.
The Sunday Times claimed pro-Brexit lawmakers are prepared to topple May if she tries to compromise and keep Britain in the EU's tariff-free customs union, an option favoured by her Treasury chief Philip Hammond.
Home secretary Amber Rudd told the BBC that any deal would probably involve some form of customs “arrangement” or “partnership” with the EU, but said the Prime Minister had an "open mind" as to how that could be achieved.
But member of parliament Bernard Jenkin, who backs Brexit, urged Mrs May to rein in Mr Hammond, writing in the Sunday Telegraph that a majority of British people "want a clean Brexit and an end to the present uncertainty".
EU negotiator Michel Barnier is due to meet British Brexit secretary David Davis in London on Monday before a new round of talks. The two sides face a testing timetable to resolve the major issues before Britain leaves in March 2019.
A leaked report which suggested that Britain would be worse off after Brexit whatever course they take has fuelled further anger with leading Brexiteers accusing civil servants of painting unnecessarily gloomy picture of life outside the bloc.
A former head of the civil service, Gus O'Donnell, said the allegations were unfounded. “If you're selling snake oil, you don't like the idea of experts testing your product," he told the ITV network.
"And I think that's what we've got - this backlash against evidence and experts is because they know where the experts will go."
Updated: February 5, 2018 09:33 AM