European Union negotiators are readying themselves for the collapse of Prime Minister Theresa May’s government as it lurches from one crisis to another, say officials in Brussels.
And Britain’s Opposition Labor Party is eagerly standing by, with its deputy leader warning Thursday that the ruling Conservative government is so fragile “random events could bring it down.”
“Another Day, Another Crisis,” was the Daily Telegraph’s headline Thursday in the wake of May having to fire two key Cabinet ministers in a week — Michael Fallon as her defense secretary over sexual harassment claims, and the ambitious International Development Minister Priti Patel late Wednesday over 14 unauthorized meetings with Israeli ministers, business people and a high-profile lobbyist during a family vacation to Israel.
Britain’s beleaguered prime minister and her aides are dismissing suggestions her government is near collapse, saying her ministers are “getting on with the job.”
Weakened by her gamble last year to hold snap parliamentary elections, which led to the Conservatives losing their majority in the House of Commons, May has been able to hold on to her job because a split Conservative party has been fearful of what would follow her departure and which party faction would win a leadership competition, say analysts.
The ruling party is divided between those who want a clean and total break with the European Union and those who want Britain to maintain close ties with the economic bloc, the country’s biggest trading partner.
This week’s ministerial departures add pressure on May’s minority government following a string of controversies that she appears unable to contain — from a burgeoning sexual harassment scandal that is affecting all parties, but the incumbent Conservatives the worst, and could lead to the departure of her deputy, Damian Green — to rebelliousness among her ministers as they maneuver for political advantage and plot their own policies without paying much heed to Downing Street.
Along with all of that, several ministers have triggered alarm with gaffes that have real-life consequences. Demands have been mounting across the political spectrum for May to dismiss Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson after he misspoke, when he said a British-Iranian woman jailed in Iran had been training journalists when she was arrested.
Johnson’s critics say the ill-advised remarks risk Tehran lengthening the five-year sentence handed to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, purportedly on national security grounds. Her employer, Thomson Reuters, says the characterization that she was in Iran to teach people journalism is false. Johnson has since said he "could have chosen his words more carefully."
“It’s hard to remember a time when a British government was so racked by crisis after crisis,” acknowledged political writer Sonia Sodha of Britain’s leftist The Guardian newspaper.
Few replacement candidates
Sodha believes May could survive until 2019, when Brexit talks are scheduled to have concluded, if for no other reason than no one else in the Conservative party wants to take up “the poisoned chalice” of navigating the country through its exit from the European Union.
And some Conservative lawmakers concede privately that the only reason they want May to continue is that a leadership upheaval could trigger an early election which Labor would likely win.
Other Westminster-watchers aren’t as confident that May — a virtual prisoner of warring party factions over Brexit — can survive much longer.
“Governments often survive sleaze scandals, recessions and even the most disastrous of wars. Few, if any, ever recover when they become laughing stocks, objects of pity and ridicule. That, tragically, is the direction in which Theresa May’s rudderless government is fast heading,” according to Conservative commentator Allister Heath.
More challenges ahead
Much will likely depend on whether the sexual harassment crisis rocking Westminster claims other officials. The government also risks defeat in the coming days on amendments to EU withdrawal legislation. Additionally, another key factor in May's survival is likely to come when later this month, the government reports on the state of the public finances — they could be worse than expected and require further unpopular cuts.
Some analysts are likening May’s position to that of a Conservative predecessor, John Major, whose 1992-1997 government was in disarray almost from the start due to scandals, divisions over Europe and a recession. Major was enraged by the disloyalty of his Cabinet and in an outburst picked up by a television microphone he thought was switched off, labeled three of his ministers “bastards.” Despite its instability, Major's government managed to soldier on for nearly five years.
EU leaders aren’t so sure May can repeat Major’s achievement.
For EU, many unknown
Officials say Brussels is preparing contingency plans for May leaving before the new year and Britain holding early elections months later. An unnamed European leader told the British newspaper The Times, “There is the great difficulty of the leadership in Great Britain, which is more and more fragile. Britain is very weak and the weakness of Theresa May makes negotiations very difficult.”
Talks between British and EU negotiators were resuming Thursday in the sixth round of talks over Brexit. May is hoping her negotiators can secure a breakthrough and persuade the EU to start moving on to talks about a future trade deal even before there is a final deal on the rights of EU citizens living in Britain, what will become of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and the “divorce bill.”
London has suggested that since an agreement is near on the divorce terms, trade talks should start immediately, but the Europeans have a different take.
Speaking Thursday, a top EU lawmaker, Sophie in ’t Veld, warned there has been little progress, saying, “A year-and-a-half has passed since the Brexit vote and we haven’t moved an inch and the situation is getting very, very worrying.” She accused the British government of not being clear about its negotiating position.
Fears are mounting that Britain will crash out of the EU without a trade deal with its neighbors. On Monday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross warned that losing access to Europe’s financial markets after Brexit would damage Britain’s chances of negotiating a successful trade agreement with Washington. His warning came after the heads of U.S. banks told him they were preparing plans to move staff from London and relocate them to other European cities.