Theresa May struggles to contain tensions over Brexit and austerity
Theresa May faces the first big test for her new government on Thursday as parliament votes to approve her Queen’s Speech as tensions over Brexit and austerity loom over her fragile administration.
Mrs May this week bought the support of 10 Democratic Unionist party MPs by promising £1bn of extra spending in Northern Ireland, guaranteeing her 326 votes in the crucial Commons vote against a possible 313 opposition votes.
But the prime minister’s loss of authority following her failed election gambit has created a sense of disarray at the top of the government, with senior ministers setting out different visions of Brexit.
Meanwhile Philip Hammond, the chancellor, reacted angrily on Wednesday after a Number 10 briefing suggesting he was about to end the 1 per cent pay cap for public sector workers, a key austerity measure intended to remain in place until 2020. A Downing Street spokesman later clarified that “nothing has changed”.
Labour hopes to exploit Tory tensions over Brexit and the future course of austerity in the coming weeks in parliament, but in Thursday’s vote on the Queen’s Speech Mrs May is expecting total loyalty.
Conservative whips were leaving nothing to chance, insisting that eight Tory MPs attending the Council of Europe in Strasbourg had to return to London on Tuesday night “in case there were strikes”, according to one of the MPs affected.
Scott Mann, Tory MP for North Cornwall, predicted that Mrs May will find the votes she needs. He said: “It will be tight. When the chips are down the party pulls together.”
Mrs May’s expected victory will confirm her ability to govern, with many Conservative MPs now predicting that the prime minister will be able to carry on at least until Brexit is complete in 2019, despite her weakened position. I am clear that this does not mean an unlimited transitional phase. We are going to leave the European Union.
That is what people wanted and that is what we will deliver Theresa May Brexit continues to place a strain on the cabinet and the party, with Mr Hammond and Brexit secretary David Davis publicly at odds over the shape of a future deal.
Mr Hammond is pushing for a long transition period, including the possibility of Britain staying in the customs union after Brexit on an interim basis, even if it meant that trade secretary Liam Fox could not sign any trade deals in the meantime. Meanwhile, Mr Davis has insisted that not all of Mr Hammond’s views are “quite consistent with each other”; he argues that a transition must end by 2022 and that trade deals could be agreed as soon as Brexit is complete in 2019.
Mrs May told MPs there would need to be a period of adjustment, but added: “I am clear that this does not mean an unlimited transitional phase. We are going to leave the European Union. That is what people wanted and that is what we will deliver.” But Tory officials later declined to rule out the possibility of Britain staying in the customs union during the transition, arguing that the prime minister had made it clear that “there should not be a cliff-edge”.
Mrs May said in her Lancaster House speech in January that she wanted to reach “a completely new customs agreement, become an associate member of the customs union in some way, or remain a signatory to some elements of it”.
Although Mr Davis and Mr Hammond have recently forged a partnership in seeking a business-focused Brexit, there remain differences: the chancellor has yet to be convinced that Mr Fox can sign third-party trade deals that would make up for any loss of trade with Europe when Britain eventually leaves the customs union.
Mr Hammond also favours a longer transition period than some of the Brexiters in the cabinet, including Mr Davis. Some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs have tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech calling for Britain to stay within the customs union and single market, intended to attract the support of pro-European Tory MPs.
Labour’s official position, reflecting Mr Corbyn’s ambivalence towards the EU, is for Britain to maintain “full, tariff-free access to the single market”, without actually favouring membership of either the single market or customs union.
George Parker & Jim Pickard