British Prime Minister Theresa May is facing fresh backlash Friday from within her Cabinet over what several ministers fear are concessions to the European Union (EU) in the ongoing Brexit negotiations.
After a meeting on Thursday to update her so-called Brexit “war cabinet” of the latest plans for an agreement to exit the 28-member economic bloc, there is concern among some pro-Brexit ministers that the UK may be prepared to agree an indefinite customs backstop arrangement with the EU to maintain an open border with Ireland.
According to UK media reports, international development minister Penny Mordaunt, work and pensions minister Esther McVey and Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom are among those extremely concerned and may even be toying with the idea of stepping down.
To compound the British PM’s troubles, the ruling party’s Northern Irish allies Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are threatening to pull out their support and effectively bring down the Tory government if May gave in to the EU demands over the Irish border issue ahead of a crucial summit in Brussels next week.
“When we come back with a deal, I would hope that everybody across this whole House will put the national interest first,” May said on Thursday, in an appeal for unity.
However, the signs of unity remain elusive as there are still fundamental splits in her party over what will happen to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland which currently has no checks but would require a system in place for goods check after Britain formally leaves the EU on March 29 next year.
A reported “backstop” plan would prevent checks by continuing an EU Customs Union in the whole of the UK for a non-specific time not just until the end of the transition period agreed to end in December 2021.
The has raised fears that the UK could remain bound to EU rules indefinitely, something that pro-Brexit Conservative Party members of parliament are strongly against.
The challenge facing the British PM now is to sell the latest formulation to the whole of her Cabinet and avoid any resignations, having already faced down the resignations of former foreign minister Boris Johnson and former Brexit minister David Davis back in July.
According to reports, international trade minister Liam Fox, home minister Sajid Javid, defence minister Gavin Williamson, foreign minister Jeremy Hunt, environment minister Michael Gove and Brexit minister Dominic Raab have challenged the PM over fears she will accept an unlimited backstop.
But one of May’s key allies in the Cabinet, finance minister Philip Hammond, sought to quell the prospect of an all-out rebellion and said there has been a “measurable change of pace” in talks with the EU, adding to the sense of optimism that a deal could be imminent.
Speaking at the International Monetary Fund annual meeting in Bali, he said: “I have always been optimistic that we would get to a deal in the end, because it’s clearly in the interest of both sides to do so.
“And what has happened over the last week, 10 days, is there’s been a measurable change in pace. There’s a real sense now of engagement from both sides of shared enterprise in trying to solve a problem rather than posturing towards each other a really important step change.
He, however, did strike a note of caution that there remain “some big differences left to resolve”.
May will head to Brussels next week in the hope of signing a deal with the remaining 27 members of the bloc, but that agreement remains poised delicately at this stage.