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Divisions Within British Government Become More Toxic

British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 25, 2018.
British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 25, 2018.

Last week British Prime Minister Theresa May basked in praise in Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum from U.S. President Donald Trump, who said he thought she was doing a good job and pledged to help advance a trade deal to help offset economic losses Britain will likely suffer from leaving the European Union.

But this week, the growing rift in her Cabinet over Brexit, as well as her leadership, has critics within her ruling Conservative party saying she isn't doing a good job and accusing her of governing more like a tortoise than a lion.

Traditionally, the Conservatives are unsentimental when it comes to ditching their leaders, and far more so than the main opposition party, Labour, which has often retained leaders long after they should have been dumped. And internecine warfare in Britain's Conservative party can be especially fratricidal: most of the key players tend to have grown up together in college, where they waged youthful ideological battles or competed to run student societies and debating clubs. The bruising rivalries of the past often remain unforgiven.

But few of May's senior party foes have the political courage to condemn her openly. That is left to lawmaker allies who don't have government positions or to ideological friends in the country's top newspapers, mostly Conservative.

Hence this week's avalanche of headlines in the key Conservative newspapers, The Times, Daily Telegraph, and Daily Mail: "Theresa May Faces Growing Calls to Quit," "It Could End for Mrs. May Tomorrow," "One Well-Aimed Speech Could Topple Mrs. May," and "Theresa May's 'Tortoise' Leadership Openly Criticized."

In a column headlined "Will Someone Rid Us of This Appalling PM?" The Times columnist Iain Martin accused May of overseeing "one of the most spineless, depressed and depressing administrations in living memory." He remarked she appears "temperamentally incapable" of getting things done, "with a zero capacity for initiative."

Demonstrators, one dressed in a Theresa May puppet head pose near parliament in London, March 13, 2017.
Demonstrators, one dressed in a Theresa May puppet head pose near parliament in London, March 13, 2017.

Dogged by criticism

May has been dogged by criticism and predictions of doom since she became prime minister in July 2016 after her Conservative predecessor, David Cameron, quit in the wake of the Brexit referendum. But even her friends acknowledge her tenure has been hapless.

She called an early snap parliamentary election in a bid to expand her party's Commons majority, only to suffer reversal after running what the media described as a desultory and robotic campaign. That left her heading a minority government dependent on the votes of a small Northern Ireland party.

Critics say May has struggled to define exactly what she stands for, and what she has to offer.

She tried to distinguish herself by offering a social mobility agenda, but that effort collapsed when the entire board of a high-powered Social Mobility Commission resigned in protest at the lack of government action, claiming they were being used as window-dressing.

Earlier this month, her attempt to mold a more friendly Cabinet in a reorganization failed calamitously and revealed her weakness when some senior ministers refused to be moved or sacked. One minister told the Spectator magazine's James Forsyth, "She's like the Wizard of Ozthere's nothing there when you pull back the curtain."

But behind the curtain is a raging battle within the British establishment over Brexit, one seamed with personal rivalries and ambition. And that, according to a Conservative minister who spoke with VOA, is "sucking the oxygen from the government."

He added, "We are unable to agree on what Brexit should mean, unable to address other pressing matters, including the awful state of the national health service, and that issue alone could lose us the next general election, and when it comes to important foreign issues, we are just missing in action."


Party members clash over whether Britain should crash out of the European Union without a deal, secure a Canada-like trade agreement or follow the Norwegian example and exit the political institutions of the bloc, Britain's largest trading partner, but retain membership in the Single Market and the customs union.

Britain's "soft-Brexit" finance minister, Philip Hammond, caused a storm last week when he said in Davos that May's government would seek only "modest" changes in Britain's relationship with the European Union in upcoming negotiations, prompting a furious reaction from so-called hard Brexiters, who have also been making speeches, infuriating May's officials and disclosing the scale of party rifts.

A leaked government analysis Tuesday that projects Britain will be considerably worse off after Brexit, and especially so if it exits without a deal, is fueling the rancor within party circles with hard Brexiters dubbing their opponents "mutineers" and "traitors" and soft-Brexiters describing their foes as "swivel-eyed" and "jihadists."

Conservative insiders say May has survived because senior members on either side of the party's Brexit divide fear the consequences of a leadership challenge. Neither side can guarantee one of their champions would replace May.Others worry that trying to topple May now will lead to an early election, one that Labour is in a strong position to win.

"She survives, for now, because anyone who took over from her would face the same challenges and the same disaffection," says Walter Ellis, a commentator with the news site Reaction.

An earlier version of this story misidentified Iain Martin as a columnist with The Telegraph. He is in fact a columnist with The Times. VOA regrets the error.