British Prime Minister Theresa May warned her divided party on Sunday that there may be “no Brexit at all” if they wrecked her plan to forge a close relationship with the European Union after leaving the world’s biggest trading bloc.
“My message to the country this weekend is simple: we need to keep our eyes on the prize,” May wrote on Facebook. “If we don’t, we risk ending up with no Brexit at all.”
Linking the fate of Brexit to her own survival in such an explicit way indicates just how precarious May’s position remains after her government was thrust into crisis and U.S. President Donald Trump publicly criticized her Brexit strategy.
With less than nine months to go before the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU on March 29, 2019, the country, the political elite and business leaders are still deeply divided over what form Brexit should take.
By warning that Brexit itself is in danger, May is sending a blunt message to the dozens of hardline Brexiteers in her party that if they sink her premiership then they risk squandering the victory of an EU exit that they have dreamed about for decades.
Some pro-Brexit Conservatives fear that a deal could emerge that leaves Britain tightly bound to EU rules and represents a Brexit in name only.
The British government has also stepped up planning for a so called “no deal” Brexit that could spook financial markets and dislocate trade flows across Europe and beyond.
May has repeatedly said Brexit will happen and has ruled out a rerun of the 2016 referendum, although French President Emmanuel Macron and billionaire investor George Soros have suggested that Britain could still change its mind.
Seeking to strike a balance between those who want a smooth Brexit and those who fear staying too close to the EU’s orbit, May sought the approval of senior ministers for her plans on July 6.
After hours of talks at her Chequers country residence she appeared to have won over her cabinet, but just two days later David Davis resigned as Brexit secretary, followed by her foreign minister, Boris Johnson, the next day.
May called on Sunday for the country to back her plan for “friction-free movement of goods”, saying it was the only option to avoid undermining the peace in Northern Ireland and preserving the unity of the United Kingdom.
Davis, writing in the Sunday Times, said it was an “astonishingly dishonest claim” to say there is no worked-out alternative to May’s plan. He said her plan would allow EU regulations to harm British manufacturers.
“Be in no doubt: under the government’s proposal our fingers would still be caught in this mangle and the EU would use it ruthlessly to punish us for leaving and handicap our future competitiveness,” Davis said.
Steve Baker, a senior lawmaker who served as a deputy to Davis in the Brexit ministry before resigning with his boss, said May had presided over a “cloak and dagger” plot to undermine Brexit.
May’s position was further undermined by Trump who said in an interview published in Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper on Friday that her proposals would probably kill off any chance of a post-Brexit trade deal with the world’s biggest economy.
May on Sunday revealed that Trump had previously advised her to sue the EU rather than enter into an exit negotiation with the bloc.
“He told me I should sue the EU,” she told BBC television. “Sue the EU. Not go into negotiations – sue them.”
Though Trump later contradicted his comments by then promising a great U.S. trade deal, the president made clear his admiration for the 54-year-old Johnson, who Trump said would one day make a great British prime minister.