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

CONTROVERSY. Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May is seen during a BBC television interview ahead of the Conservative Party Conference 2018, in Birmingham on September 30, 2018. Photo by Ben Stansall/AFP

CONTROVERSY. Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May is seen during a BBC television interview ahead of the Conservative Party Conference 2018, in Birmingham on September 30, 2018.

Photo by Ben Stansall/AFP

BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom – Prime Minister Theresa May gathered her party for its annual conference on Sunday, September 30, under immediate attack from leading rival Boris Johnson over her strategy for pulling Britain out of the European Union.

The Conservative leader arrived in Birmingham, central England, only days after the EU rejected her plan for close trade links after Brexit and demanded a rethink before a summit in mid-October.

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

Johnson, long tipped as a successor to May, published his own Brexit program last week, and in an interview with the Sunday Times newspaper, condemned her plan as "deranged" and "preposterous."

May also came under pressure from pro-Europeans in her party, with protesters set to hold a rally in Birmingham for a second Brexit vote – which she has ruled out.

In a BBC interview on Sunday, the prime minister said her plan was the only way to protect cross-border trade in goods and avoid physical checks on the Irish border.

"My message to my party is, let's come together and get the best deal for Britain," she said.

Analysts believe May will have to give further ground to Brussels to secure a withdrawal agreement before Brexit in March next year, although no announcements are expected at the conference.

"I've always said it was going to be tough, and it was always going to get toughest towards the end of the negotiations. 

"But we're continuing to focus on getting a good deal for the UK," the prime minister said Sunday.

Threats to leadership

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

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

Charismatic and with a populist touch, Johnson is a favorite with the Conservative faithful and is expected to draw large crowds to his speech at a fringe event on Tuesday, October 2.

In his interview Sunday, he made a direct pitch for the leadership by setting out a slew of domestic policy ideas.

When asked if May should stay on until the next election in 2022, he said: "The prime minister said she is going to serve for as long as her party wants her, and I certainly think she should."

But many believe May's rivals will wait and see what happens in the EU talks before making a decisive move against her.

One Brexiteer MP who wants a new leader told Agence France-Presse 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.

Labor threat

The opening to the conference was overshadowed by a security breach in the mobile app for the event which allowed users to access phone numbers of senior ministers and MPs.

It was an inauspicious start, the year after May's closing conference speech was marred by a collapsing set and a prankster stage invasion.

Many Conservative MPs are anxious the party should present something more than Brexit divisions this week in Birmingham, as they eye the threat posed by the opposition Labor party.

Leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn presented a radical economic program for government at his own conference last week.

The party also said it would likely reject May's Brexit deal when it comes to a vote of MPs, raising the possibility of fresh elections.

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 keep voters interested.

May announced plans on Sunday to increase the property purchase tax for foreign buyers, amid concerns overseas investors are driving up prices, with the money to be used to tackle homelessness.

She also said she wanted a national festival of innovation and culture starting in January 2022 to showcase post-Brexit Britain. – Rappler.com