LONDON – Prime Minister Theresa May sought to strike a deal with a Northern Irish Protestant party to save her premiership on Tuesday as she came under intense pressure to soften her approach to Brexit days before formal EU divorce talks.
May’s botched election gamble, which saw her lose her parliamentary majority, left her so weakened that supporters of closer ties with the European Union publicly demanded she take a more consensual and business friendly approach to Brexit.
In an attempt to avoid a second election that could deepen the worst political turmoil in Britain since last June’s shock vote to leave the European Union, May apologized to her Conservative Party’s lawmakers, who said they would leave her in power — for now.
“She said: ‘I’m the person who got us into this mess and I’m the one who is going to get us out of it,’ ” said one Conservative lawmaker who attended Monday’s meeting. “She said she will serve us as long as we want her.”
To stay in government, May must strike a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, a small euroskeptic Northern Irish party with 10 parliamentary seats.
DUP leader Arlene Foster arrived for talks with May. She waved but did not say anything as she went into 10 Downing St. She looked at her watch and ignored a question from a reporter who asked: “What is your price?”
“The deal will be done,” said Jon Tonge, professor of politics at Liverpool University. “Basically it will be Theresa May signing checks for the foreseeable future or a monthly direct debit, as it were, into Northern Ireland’s coffers.”
“The DUP may never have the political arithmetic so favorable again so like the Conservatives, the DUP will want to avoid another election and will want to keep drinking in the political free bar that is available to it,” Tonge said.
But a deal with the DUP would risk destabilizing the political balance in Northern Ireland by increasing the influence of pro-British unionists who have struggled for years with Irish Catholic nationalists who want Northern Ireland to join a united Ireland.
While the DUP is deeply euroskeptic, they have balked at some of the practical implications of a so-call hard Brexit — including a potential loss of a “frictionless border” with the Republic of Ireland — and talks will touch on efforts to minimize the potential damage to Northern Ireland.
With formal EU divorce talks due next week, May heads to France on Tuesday to meet Emmanuel Macron, who last month swept to victory in the presidential election.
During the campaign, May cast herself as the only leader competent enough to navigate the tortuous Brexit negotiations that will shape the future of the United Kingdom and its $2.5 trillion economy.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, which saw its number of parliamentary seats and share of the vote increase, said there could be another election this year or early in 2018 after Thursday’s vote produced no clear winner.
May, who ahead of the June referendum supported remaining in the EU, has promised to start the formal Brexit talks next week but opponents of a sharp break with the EU took her woes as a chance to push back against her strategy.
Before the election, May proposed a clean break from the EU, involving withdrawal from Europe’s single market, limits on immigration and a bespoke customs deal with the EU.
Brexit minister David Davis has insisted the approach to the EU divorce had not changed, but at the meeting with lawmakers on Monday, May recognized that a broader consensus needed to be built for Brexit and made clear she would listen to all wings of the party on the issue.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said the government should put economic growth at the heart of its Brexit strategy, while some senior ministers have pushed for less focus on immigration and more on jobs.
The Daily Telegraph reported cabinet ministers have opened back channel talks to senior Labour lawmakers to secure a cross-party agreement on Brexit. When asked about the Daily Telegraph article, Michael Gove, a minister who campaigned for Brexit, told ITV: “This is news to me.”
William Hague, a former leader of the Conservative Party, called for business groups and lawmakers from all parties to be brought in to agree a national position on Brexit.
May’s weakness means she must now listen to all shades of opinion on Brexit as she goes into Britain’s most complex negotiations since World War II.
But May faces a difficult balancing act: Divisions over Europe helped sink the premierships of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron, and many of her lawmakers and party membership support a sharp break with the EU.
“The Tory civil war on the EU which has ripped it apart since the Maastricht rebellions of the early 1990s, and which the referendum was supposed to solve, is now raging again,” said Chris Grey, an academic who specializes in Brexit at Royal Holloway in London.
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