LONDON – Theresa May will stay on as U.K. prime minister to get Brexit done, even if that means remaining in the job until the end of October, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said Friday.
May promised to step aside once the divorce agreement has been passed in Parliament, so a new leader can take charge of the next phase of Brexit talks focusing on the future partnership with the European Union. Many politicians in the ruling Conservative Party want to force her out sooner, but Hammond suggested they’ll be disappointed.
“As far I know she doesn’t have any intention of leaving until that deal is done,” Hammond said in an interview with Bloomberg TV’s Francine Lacqua at the International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington. “She’s a person with a strong sense of duty, she’s a person who feels she has an obligation to the British people to deliver Brexit, and she will certainly want to make good on that obligation.”
Britain was due to leave the EU on March 29, but has twice had to ask the bloc’s other 27 leaders for an extension. The latest plan, in an agreement finalized this week at a summit in Brussels, is for the U.K. to depart the bloc by Oct. 31. Back in Westminster, May’s government is holding talks with the opposition Labour Party to see if they can agree on a compromise deal that Parliament would support.
Hammond said the government is open to discussing a customs union with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as it is one of the party’s key demands. However, he said the government may not back the idea in the end.
“We’re prepared to discuss all of these things with them,” he said. “Just because they’ve put it on the table, it doesn’t mean we’re going to accept it or we’re going to do it. But we are prepared to talk about it.”
He also said if voters had wanted economic security, they would have chosen to stay in the EU in the 2016 referendum; instead they made a political and emotional choice to leave. He said the government was trying to limit the economic fallout of that decision.
“This is not an economic debate,” he said. “Bluntly, if we were only driven by economics, the British people would have decided to stay in the European Union. The reason for voting to come out were not economic reasons, they were emotional reasons, political reasons.”
In the interview, Hammond also said that Tory leadership rivals are already jockeying for position to succeed May, but that a Conservative Party leadership election before Brexit concludes would be a mistake: “Starting the leadership process before we have resolved the question would not be helpful, it would look self-indulgent.”
“It’s a very open question” for the Labour party at the moment about whether they should back a second referendum, Hammond added.