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With Brexit clock ticking, Britain's May gathers fractious party

Europe | 2018-09-30 08:01:00
With Brexit clock ticking, Britain's May gathers fractious party
   British Prime Minister Theresa May
British Prime Minister Theresa May gathers her party for its annual conference this weekend, facing opposition on all sides as she heads into the final stretch of Brexit negotiations.

The Conservative leader arrived in Birmingham, central England, just days after the EU rejected her plan for close future economic ties and demanded a rethink before a summit in mid-October.

Many of her eurosceptic MPs also oppose the proposal and, led by former ministers David Davis and Boris Johnson, will use the conference to argue for a looser trade agreement instead.

Johnson, long tipped as a successor to May, fired the starting gun by publishing his own Brexit plan on Friday, accusing the government of "collective failure" in the talks with Brussels.

However, May insists there is no viable alternative, and is expected to use her closing speech at the conference on Wednesday to paint herself as a tough negotiator who will stand up for Britain.

Her defiant response to the EU last week, where she demanded it show her "respect", won praise from her MPs and the eurosceptic press.

Any concessions she might make to the bloc, including on the Irish border -- a key sticking point in the Brexit talks -- are not expected until after the conference wraps up.

- Threats to leadership -

Since losing her parliamentary majority in a disastrous snap election last year, May has faced endless internal plotting and rumours of a leadership challenge.

Many potential successors inside and outside her cabinet will address delegates this week, notably Johnson, who quit as foreign minister in July over May's Brexit plan.

Charismatic, witty and with a populist touch, Johnson is a favourite with the Conservative faithful and is expected to draw large crowds to his speech at a fringe event on Tuesday.

But May's rivals are expected to wait and see what happens in the EU talks before making a clear move against her.

One Brexiteer MP who wants a new leader told AFP the crunch time would come when the House of Commons votes on the final Brexit deal, possibly in November or December.

May only has a slim working majority among the 650 MPs, making her vulnerable to even the smallest rebellion.

- Labour threat -

Away from Brexit, many Conservative MPs meeting in Birmingham are wary of the threat posed by the opposition Labour party, which held its own conference this week.

Leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn presented a radical economic programme for government, while senior figures raised the possibility of a second Brexit vote if they took power, including an option to stay in the EU.

Labour cannot force a general election but the prospect might increase if they go through with their threat to vote against May's Brexit deal, which could cause chaos.

May has repeatedly ruled out a second Brexit referendum and says an election is "not in the national interest" -- but some Tories fear that if it happens, they are not ready.

The Conservatives are slightly ahead of Labour in opinion polls, but a slew of senior figures have warned in recent days that they need new ideas to woo voters.

Public opinion is shifting against eight years of Conservative public spending cuts, and around 200 demonstrators rallied in Birmingham on Saturday to protest against austerity.

Labour is "speaking to the problems faced by many. We too often speak only for the few," senior MP Robert Halfon wrote on the influential ConservativeHome website.

George Freeman MP, the former chairman of May's policy board, retweeted the article, adding: "Yep. While we seem more interested in our internal Brexit power struggle."

In a less-than-auspicious start to the event, phone numbers and other personal details of MPs including senior ministers were temporarily revealed by a flaw in the official conference mobile app.

The security breach saw members of the public able to view and edit data on attendees.

A party spokesperson apologised for the gaffe, saying the technical issue had "been resolved and the app is now functioning securely".
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