There was a very British drop-the-mic moment at the conclusion of Theresa May’s press conference on Thursday to address Brexit and its increasing complications: a self-comparison of the beleaguered prime minister to cricketer Geoffrey Boycott.
May, an avowed cricket fan, was asked about her diminishing odds of success as she tries to shepherd through the United Kingdom’s separation from the European Union. “You're a long, long way off getting the number of runs that you need, but your batsmen are dropping like flies,” a reporter asked. “Is there any number of wickets that will fall in your cabinet before you resign as Captain?”
May’s response was to name-drop the famed Yorkshire batsman. “You know about Geoffrey Boycott? Geoffrey Boycott stuck to it. And he got the runs in the end,” she said.
That final quip fit within the general message May sought to hammer out as she spoke outside 10 Downing St. The public, she said, is looking to the Conservative party to deliver “a Brexit that works for the whole U.K.; a strong economy that keep jobs safe and wages rising; first-class public services we can rely on; an NHS there for all of us; great schools for every child; and the homes that families need.”
The good news for May: On Wednesday, despite threats of a no-confidence vote, she cajoled her cabinet into backing a draft Brexit deal. The separation agreement now faces approval by the European Commission.
The bad news: That plan is triggering resignations and further amplified calls for her to step down.
“We gave the vote to the British people to decide whether or not to stay in the European Union. The people voted to leave, and I believe it is our duty as a government to deliver on that vote of the British people. We will be leaving on March 29, 2019.”
Theresa May, British Prime Minister
Speaking a day after the release of the draft plan, May said there was a “collective decision” to back the plan, rather than support alternatives, such as a no-deal Brexit, or abandoning the effort completely.
“That is what the people we serve expect, and that is what we owe to them to deliver,” she added. “I'm also determined to protect the things that are important to us: protect the hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs that put food on the tables of working families right across the U.K. Those jobs rely on cross-border trade in goods with parts flowing easily in and out of the U.K. allowing for integrated supply chains—this agreement protects that.” The plan also protects the integrity of the country “by leaving the EU as one United Kingdom and having no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.”
May admitted that “difficult and sometimes uncomfortable decisions had to be made.”
“I understand fully that there are some who are unhappy with those compromises, but this deal delivers what people voted for and it is in the national interest and we can only secure it if we unite behind the agreement reached in cabinet yesterday,” she said. “If we do not move forward with that agreement, nobody can know for sure the consequences that will follow. It would be to take a path of deep and grave uncertainty when the British people just want us to get on with it."
May’s job, she reiterated, was to make “the right decisions, not the easy ones, as prime minister.”
At the press conference, a Daily Mail reporter asked May what she would do if there was a vote of no confidence in the coming days?
“Leadership is about making the right decisions, not taking the easy decisions, as prime minister,” she responded. “My job is to get the best deal for Britain and to bring that deal back to the House of Commons. That's exactly what I am focused on doing. I think members of the public want the government to get on with delivering on Brexit for them. As I said earlier, am I going to see this through? Yes.”
Does she think, given the forces that are lined up in opposition to the deal, that no Brexit proponents are becoming a real threat?
“There were a number of members of Parliament who stood up in the House of Commons today and said that their view was that staying within the European Union was the right thing to do. I disagree,” May said. “We gave the vote to the British people to decide whether or not to stay in the European Union. The people voted to leave, and I believe it is our duty as a government to deliver on that vote of the British people. We will be leaving on March 29, 2019.”
May’s optimistic talk ran counter to growing discontent with Brexit, the draft separation agreement, and her leadership in ushering the effort to fruition. That is especially true as she faces the domino effect of party resignations.
Five members of her pro-Brexit team have thus far resigned in protest. The list includes Rehman Chishti, who stepped down on Nov. 15 as Conservative party junior vice chairman and trade envoy to Pakistan, and Northern Ireland Minister Shailesh Vara.
Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey’s resignation included harsh words for the deal brokered by May in the draft Brexit plan released this week.
“There is no more important task for this government than delivering in the U.K.’s United decision to leave the European Union,” McVey wrote in her resignation letter. “The deal you put before the Cabinet yesterday does not honor the result of the referendum. Indeed, it doesn’t meet the tests you set from the outset of your premiership. Repeatedly, you have said that we must regain control of our money, our borders, and our laws and develop our own trade policy. This deal fails to do this.”
The proposals put before the cabinet mean “handing over around £39 billion (U.S. $50.6 billion) to the EU without anything in return,” McVey added. “It will trap us in a customs union, despite you specifically promising the British people we would not be. It will bind the hands of not only this, but future governments in pursuing genuine free trade policies. We wouldn’t be taking back control, we would be handing over control to the EU and even to a third country for arbitration … I cannot defend this, and I cannot vote for this deal. I could not look my constituents in the eye if I were to do that.”
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab argued that “the regulatory regime proposed for Northern Ireland presents a very real threat to the integrity of the U.K.” He also declared his opposition to the European Union having veto power over the United Kingdom’s exit.
Another voice of discontent comes from May’s Scottish constituents.
The U.K. government's proposed Brexit deal is “essentially dead” because of “self-imposed draconian red lines,” Constitutional Relations Secretary Michael Russell said in a statement to the Scottish Parliament.
Russell, addressing that body, called the draft EU withdrawal agreement “unacceptable,” because it does not allow Scotland continued membership of the European Single Market. The Scottish Government will work with others “to ensure a better deal,” he said.
Russell confirmed that the Scottish Parliament would be asked to vote on the deal before any vote in the House of Commons.
“Brexit isn't a better future,” he said. “It is a backward step into an imagined past. We must acknowledge that this deal is unacceptable to Scotland and her citizens. It therefore cannot be supported by this Government. We must find a way to work together and ensure that our country is not failed by a disastrous Brexit but enabled to flourish by choosing a different way forward.”
Labour MP David Lammy took to Twitter on Thursday to also express his concerns and reiterate his anti-Brexit stance. “We are plunging head first into a constitutional crisis worse than anything I have seen in my nearly 20 years of politics,” he wrote. “May's deal is dead, and it is unclear how long she can survive as PM. We are stuck. The only way to move forward is to let the public vote.”
“The Prime Minister did not resign today, but she is the walking dead,” he later added. “Her deal has been rejected by all sides, and she has nowhere left to turn. Millions are now crying out for new direction and the chance to remain in the EU.”
Pundits in the United Kingdom are closely watching the ongoing threat of a no-confidence vote in May and the potential for even harsher political repercussions.
“May’s press conference made clear that she is now, essentially, in a game of chicken with the Commons. She’s calculating that ultimately enough MPs will blink and vote for her deal to get it through,” tweeted James Forsyth, political editor of The Spectator. “It is a very big gamble.”