LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May will address Conservative Party lawmakers at a private meeting in parliament on Wednesday after anger at her Brexit negotiating strategy prompted some of them to discuss replacing her.
May asked to address her divided party’s powerful “1922 Committee” where she can expect questions from lawmakers, some of whom have discussed forcing a leadership contest.
But her request to attend the committee meeting signals that she does not expect a febrile situation, which earlier this week pushed investors to sell Britain’s sterling currency on fears of political upheaval, is to flare into a formal challenge.
With just over five months to go until Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU on March 29, May’s Brexit negotiation has stalled over a disagreement on a fallback plan for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Many business leaders and investors fear politics could scupper an agreement, thrusting the world’s fifth largest economy into a “no-deal” Brexit they say would spook markets and clog up the arteries of trade.
Companies will suffer and criminals could benefit from the inevitable border disruption that will ensue if Britain leaves the European Union without a deal, the country’s public spending watchdog said on Wednesday.
May failed to clinch a deal at an EU summit last week and her decision to raise the possibility of extending a post-Brexit transition period — keeping Britain under EU governance with no say in it to help end the deadlock — has angered both hardline supporters of Brexit and pro-EU lawmakers.
An Ipsos MORI poll on Wednesday showed a record 78 percent of voters lacked confidence in May to get a good deal from Brussels, compared to 70 percent in September.
“And yet, the public don’t put all the blame at her door – and nor is there much evidence that they would have much more confidence in anyone else,” said Gideon Skinner, Head of Political Research at Ipsos MORI
Many Conservative Party lawmakers are wary of toppling a leader on the eve of Britain’s most significant political and economic move it joined the bloc in 1973. Many also fear an election could bring the opposition Labour Party into power.
‘FIRST CIRCLE OF HELL’
EU sources have told Reuters that British negotiators proposed that Britain could stay long term in a customs union with the EU, during talks that reached close technical agreement on a possible deal 10 days ago.
On Wednesday, the Times newspaper reported that leaked cabinet papers suggested that May’s Brexit plans could leave Britain in a “long-running” multi-year transition period despite her promise that it would last only a few months.
May’s office said the newspaper’s report was “nothing more than a partial reflection of advice given to ministers and not of decisions taken”.
“The PM …doesn’t want to enter into an additional implementation period, she doesn’t believe one will be necessary. Were it the case … she would want it to come to an end well before the end of the parliament,” her spokesman said.
The Times said her attorney-general, Geoffrey Cox, compared May’s Brexit plans at a cabinet meeting on Monday to Dante’s “first circle of hell”.
Ever since losing her party its majority in parliament with a botched bet on a 2017 snap election, May has faced talk of a leadership challenge.
But there was a change of tone in the British media this week, with some newspapers carrying unusually bloodthirsty language by unidentified opponents.
One said May was entering “the killing zone”, while another said May should “bring her own noose” to the 1922 committee meeting.
A vote of no-confidence in May would be triggered if 48 Conservative lawmakers submit letters to the chairman of the 1922 committee to demand such a vote.
The Sunday Times said 46 had now been sent and the BBC’s political editor said on Monday that the 48 number had not yet been reached. The number of letters held by the committee chairman is not made public.