Struggling British PM faces confidence vote

May's government is also dealing with the fall-out of a string of terror attacks and the blaze at the Grenfell Tower

Afp/afp June 29, 2017
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May gives her speech on the final day of the annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, Britain. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May's government faces a vote of confidence on Thursday, three weeks after a disastrous election left her authority in tatters and her Brexit strategy in doubt.

Members of the House of Commons will vote on the Conservative leader's legislative plans - the Queen's Speech - in a key test of whether she can stay in power.

The government is expected to pass its programme after forming a deal with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 MPs will vote with 317 Conservatives.

That tally is enough, barely, for a majority in the 650-seat chamber but May's authority has been deeply damaged by the election, which she called three years early expecting to win a landslide. Instead, she finds herself hanging on by a thread.

The majority of the bills in the Queen's Speech concern Britain's departure from the European Union, on which the first formal negotiations took place last week.

But May's Brexit plan is under scrutiny as many saw the election as a rebuke to her move to pull Britain out of Europe's single market - its largest trading market - to prioritise cutting EU immigration.

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May's government is also dealing with the fall-out of a string of terror attacks and the blaze at the Grenfell Tower block in London, which left at least 80 people presumed dead and saw the premier accused of being out of touch with the public mood by not acting quickly enough.

Calls to prioritise jobs and growth in Brexit are growing, including from Finance Minister Philip Hammond, who May was expected to sack after the election but who has stayed on.

Cabinet tensions have also seen Hammond take a swipe at eurosceptic Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson over his claim that Britain could "have its cake and eat it" in the negotiations. "I try to discourage talk of 'cake' amongst my colleagues," the finance minister said during a speech in Berlin.

Hammond emphasised the need for transitional deals to avoid a damaging "cliff-edge" when Britain leaves, but in London, Brexit minister David Davis slapped him down, saying his views were "not quite consistent". Davis also introduced confusion by suggesting that Britain would not stay in the customs union as part of a transitional deal.

May's spokesperson insisted that "everybody is on the same page", and nothing had changed.

However, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was asked at a summit last week whether he was clear on Britain's position on Brexit, to which he replied: 'No.'

"Whatever May and Davis are saying in public, Brexit policy is in fact in flux," said Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform.

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He noted the increased influence of Hammond and the Scottish Conservatives, who did well in the election and have also emphasised maintaining trade ties with the EU.

Meanwhile Labour, which won 262 seats, has accepted that Britain will be leaving the single market but wants "full tariff-free access" to protect jobs. "The easiest thing for May to do is to press ahead with the Brexit that her right-wing desires. But that is probably not sustainable in the long term," Grant said.

He added, "If May doesn't reinvent herself as a soft-Brexiteer, she is likely to be defeated in parliament."

After more than two weeks of wrangling, May announced a deal with the DUP on Monday where they agreed to back her minority government in confidence and budget votes.

She promised to give Northern Ireland an extra £1.0 billion (1.1 billion euros, $1.3 billion) in state aid over the next two years.

But there is doubt about how long the alliance can last.

The DUP's ultra-conservative views on abortion and gay marriage have caused disquiet among many Conservatives. There are also concerns that the deal could upset the fragile balance of power in Northern Ireland.


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