UK political chaos threatens Brexit talks
Uncertainty is rife in British politics as Theresa May hangs on and ministers jostle for position. But with time running out for a Brexit deal, is it time for someone new to take charge?
It was just after 10pm on June 8th, Theresa May recounted last week, that her husband entered the room, told her the result of the general election exit poll and gave her a hug. Then, the prime minister admitted, she shed “a little tear”.
The election result has wrought havoc with British politics at what some call the country’s most perilous moment since World War II.
The prime minister is weakened. The government’s majority is gone. Backbench MPs threaten to rebel. And ministers jockey for their position in case a vacancy opens up in the top job.
But as the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier reminded ministers last week, “the clock is ticking” down to Brexit with no sign of a deal with Europe in sight, and the confusion emanating from London is not helping matters. He will seek more clarity from the Brexit secretary David Davis when they meet for the latest round of talks today.
The former cabinet secretary and head of the Civil Service Gus O’Donnell warned on Saturday of chaos if the UK went into Brexit without strong political leadership. “It appears that cabinet members haven’t yet finished negotiating with each other, never mind the EU,” he wrote.
Indeed, the Sunday papers were busy with gossip and leaks on the big cabinet players. The Sunday Times reported sniping between Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson. Both are touted as potential successors to May.
Meanwhile unguarded comments made by chancellor Philip Hammond during a cabinet meeting also leaked. Taking to TV to defend himself, he accused fellow ministers of trying to undermine him over his approach to Brexit.
Many commentators are despairing. Nick Cohen lamented in The Spectator that neither the Conservatives nor Labour are able to “offer a coherent account of what Britain should do next”, while the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf predicted that the UK’s reputation for stable, pragmatic politics “will not survive the spectacular mess it is making of Brexit”.
Political leadership seems in short supply. So is it time for May to step aside to make way for someone else to pilot the UK through Brexit?
Yes, say some. She has done well to hang on this long but the last couple of weeks have shown that she cannot assert her authority here, let alone with the EU. It is time for her to step aside for someone who can set out a fresh vision and unite the government and the country.
Hang on, say others. Who is this saviour exactly? No one in the Conservative party seems to want to challenge May directly and Labour are just as split on Brexit. This is no time to be messing around. People should stop speculating and let May get on with the job so we can get the best deal from the EU.
- Should Theresa May resign?
- Should the government change its approach to Brexit?
- In pairs, discuss which qualities you think make someone a good leader. Compare them with the rest of the class. Were they the same?
- Class debate: This house believes there should be a second Brexit referendum.
Some People Say...
“Whom the Gods wish to destroy first they make mad. So it now is over Brexit.”— Martin Wolf
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Theresa May has undoubtedly been weakened by the election result. Lacking a majority means she must make concessions to backbench MPs and ministers have been more willing to question her policies in public. There are also conflicting messages over the Brexit negotiations from different ministers, particularly Boris Johnson and David Davis.
- What do we not know?
- Whether May will be able to hang on as prime minister. No one wants to challenge her directly, and Conservatives are wary of cornering themselves into another general election which they think Labour could win. But talk of ousting May in the papers refuses to go away.
- Exit poll
- A poll conducted on the day of the election that usually predicts the result fairly accurately. At the last election the exit poll predicted 314 seats for the Conservatives — 12 short of a majority. The party went on to win 318 seats.
- MPs who are not part of the government or shadow government. The government has a working majority of 13, so even a small rebellion can result in a loss.
- The UK could leave the EU without a deal, but this would make it very difficult to trade with Europe and cause problems for industries such as aviation that rely on EU treaties.
- Gus O’Donnell
- In his day, the now Lord O’Donnell used to be nicknamed “God” as much for the power he wielded as his initials.
- Hammond reportedly said that public sector workers were “overpaid”. Pay for public sector workers such as nurses has become a sensitive political issue.
- The chancellor has indicated that he wants to prioritise the economy in the Brexit negotiations, even if that means compromising on other aspects such as immigration.