The UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, is heading into deep water as she faces making two speeches on Brexit which will require very sensitive handling.
Firstly, she will speak to the European Union itself in an attempt to get negotiations back on track. Then, at the Tory Party Conference at the beginning of October, a very different audience will be expecting a different tone regarding proceedings.
The fourth round of negotiations will begin on September 25th, a Government spokesman confirmed. Agreement was reached jointly between the Government and the European commission on reconvening on this date.
Hints have been given that May plans to reveal an important intervention, of which the EU may well need time for consideration.
However, the European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker seems determined that the UK’s decision to leave the Union will not interfere with his plans. In his State of the Union speech, he gave just a couple of sentences over to comment on Britain’s position, that in a speech lasting over an hour.
He described the decision as very sad, and one that Britain may live to regret. However, he moved on to talk about his plans for developing trade with Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and New Zealand. These comments are considered a provocative snub to May’s own attempts to secure new trade deals within the Commonwealth in time for 2019.
So, Theresa May has a problem. Since it seems increasingly likely that the Juncker led European Union will do little to help Britain through the Brexit process, it is likely that she will need to offer some incentive to get negotiations back on track in the September talks.
Anti-Europe Member of the European Parliament and former UKIP leader Nigel Farage will be listening closely. He was, in his response to Juncker’s presentation, deeply critical of what he sees as a further centralising of the EU’s position, and he will expect Number Ten to make a strong case for a firm deal when Britain finally leaves.
But of more worry to Theresa May and her Brexit team will be how her own party responds to developments. She will potentially be delivering her party leader’s speech within two weeks of her presentation to continental leaders.
Her own MPs and, particularly, grass roots members of the party will be expecting, just like Farage, that Britain stands her ground. The necessarily different stances seem, at this stage, irreconcilable.
Senior members of the Tory Party are already firing arrows in the beleaguered PM’s direction. Former Brexit Minister and Member of the Upper House, Lord Bridges of Headley, spoke in the Lords earlier this week, launching further attacks on Theresa May’s handling of Brexit. In his first speech since resigning as Brexit minister after June’s election, he said that Ministers were not facing up to the true problems Brexit will provide. Lord Bridges is a ‘remainer’, and stressed that Britain must be prepared to compromise. ‘We must be honest about the need to compromise,’ he said to Peers. He further added that Britain should honour its commitments… ‘we have made for the rest of the EU’s budgetary period.’
Although the Government is dropping hints that some contributions might still be necessary after Britain leaves the EU in March 2019, should the PM publicly take such a position, she will face severe criticism from within her own party, both in Parliament and in the country as a whole.
Theresa May is under pressure from many sides. Her leadership is seen as weak, and she came in for criticism for another dismal performance in the latest Prime Minister’s Question Time. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is not renowned for his fleetness of foot when it comes to speaking on the hoof, but he hit hard at weaknesses in the Government’s faltering` stance on public sector pay.
Further damage has been caused by the DUP’s decision to back Labour plans for reductions to tuition fees and changes to National Health Service workers’ pay. The Government cannot win votes without the DUP’s support, and rather than face defeat, Tory members will abstain from the votes.
Theresa May needs something to give her a boost, but the challenge of keeping all sides as happy as possible in Brexit negotiations seems certain to make her position weaker, not stronger.