Faltering Brexit negotiations trouble Theresa May’s future

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Photo credits: Southern China Morning Post (scmp.com)

By Mariah Franklin

BOLOGNA, Italy — Since Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in June 2016, its political situation has been highly fraught. Prime Minister Theresa May’s tenure in office has been consumed by Brexit, and the results of the 2017 snap elections left May in a considerably weakened position when Conservatives were forced to enter into a confidence and supply agreement with Northern Ireland’s far-right Democratic Union Party (DUP).

Challenges to May’s authority have appeared both in and outside the UK; earlier this year, U.S. President Donald Trump weighed in on former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s suitability for the job of prime minister. In recent days, a number of Conservative MPs have admitted to drafting letters of no confidence in May’s leadership. The current number of known letters appears to be below the threshold of 48 needed to trigger a leadership contest, but the fact that such a shake-up remains a distinct possibility has significantly constrained May’s political maneuverability.

Brexit negotiations have incited the current dispute over May’s leadership. The prime minister’s cabinet, as well as her ostensible DUP allies, have baulked at the terms of the negotiated exit from the EU put forward by May. The DUP strongly opposes May’s proposal of a regulatory border in the Irish Sea, claiming that the institution of such a border would fundamentally undermine Northern Ireland’s position in the UK. Arlene Foster, head of the DUP, has suggested that should such a border be instituted, the party will oppose the passage of the government’s monthly budget, which may trigger a new election. The prime minister’s cabinet has become progressively more suspicious of her handling of Brexit, which has also spurred recriminations from Conservative politicians such as Boris Johnson and David Davis, both of whom suggest that May conceded too much to EU negotiators.

Boris Johnson is widely considered to be May’s principal opponent in a potential leadership contest. The former cabinet minister is known for his outspoken pro-Brexit views and often inflammatory comments about a wide range of topics including nationality and migration. Though Johnson has vacillated on the issue of Brexit in the past, he is currently particularly critical of May’s proposal of an extended customs union between the UK and the EU, instead championing the adoption of a ‘Super Canada’ free trade deal that would eliminate most taxes on UK exports to Canada. As of early October, however, a majority of voters surveyed by Opinium evinced a preference for May’s leadership, leaving Johnson’s ability to secure public support in question.

Johnson’s bid for the prime ministership could be frustrated by more than just May. David Davis, former Brexit secretary, has also recently shown an interest in the position. Davis is generally regarded as more of a stable figure than Johnson, having remained staunchly anti-EU throughout his career. His call for May’s cabinet to openly revolt against her concessions to the EU attests to his hard-line stance on the terms of British exit. Davis’ name has been mentioned as a potential interim prime minister, in the event of May’s removal.

Compounding May’s current concerns, hard-line Brexiters in the cabinet have said that they intend to reach a decision regarding whether to resign over the terms of the government’s proposed exit plan at some point in the near future. May’s political situation remains deeply precarious and her ability to ensure both her own political survival and a negotiated exit from the EU remains questionable.