General Election: May muddles on but Brexit plan in tatters

Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip attend a church service. Picture; PA
Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip attend a church service. Picture; PA
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THERESA May is meeting her Cabinet ministers this morning and backbenchers this afternoon amid speculation that the general election result will force her to soften her line on Brexit and drop key manifesto policies.

The Prime Minister is due to hold talks in Downing Street tomorrow with Arlene Foster, leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), in the hope of securing the support of its ten MPs for her minority government, at least on key issues.

Mrs May carried out a reshuffle yesterday, but her humiliation at the polls meant she could not make the big changes she had originally planned, including removing Philip Hammond as Chancellor.

There is continuing speculation about how long she can continue as premier after losing her Commons majority in the snap election.

Former Chancellor George Osborne said she could be forced out within a matter of days.

He said: “Theresa May is dead woman walking. It is just how long she is going to remain on death row. I think we will know very shortly. We could easily get to the middle of next week and it all collapses for her.”

However, others suggested there was little appetite for an immediate Tory leadership contest and Mrs May could stay on for several months but would not lead the party into another election.

Senior Conservatives warned there was no longer support in Parliament for a so-called “hard Brexit”.

The DUP supports Brexit, but has refused to endorse Mrs May’s position that “no deal is better than a bad deal” and insists there must be no return of the “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson – now a powerful influence on what happens at Westminster, given the 13 Scottish Tory MPs elected last week – has called for a new approach, building cross-party support for an “open Brexit”.

And Philip Hammond is said to have told the Prime Minister that she must put “jobs first” in negotiating a new deal with Brussels, a comment interpreted as a coded attack on her focus on controlling immigration.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s Brexit Minister Mike Russell called for an urgent meeting of the UK Government and devolved administrations to draw up a new plan for Brexit.

He said: “It’s extremely important that the entire Brexit policy from Theresa May is scrapped and they start again.”

And he insisted the Scottish Government’s proposals for remaining in the single market after Brexit remained in play and were a good starting point for fresh discussions.

Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon played down the idea there would be a re-think of the approach to Brexit.

But he said: “We want to work with business on this. It is very, very important that we are careful about the existing trade we do with Europe, about access to the single market in whatever new arrangement that we come to.”

And he did not rule out the possibility of co-operating with Labour over the negotiations.

“I welcome the fact the Labour Party have shifted their view now and do not seem to be calling for a new referendum,” he said. “They, like us, I hope now want to have a successful Brexit, an agreement that works for us, that works for the European Union, that does not jeopardise the jobs and trade we do with Europe, but still implements the overall result of the referendum last year.”

The DUP is also opposed to Tory plans to abandon the “triple lock” on pensions – the guarantee of annual rises in line with inflation, average earnings or 2.5 per cent, whichever is higher.

It is thought unlikely the Government will seek to defend the policy given it was one of the manifesto proposals which proved unpopular with core Tory voters.

Graham Brady, chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, said the loss of their Commons majority meant much of the manifesto would have to be abandoned and that Mrs May would have to present a “slimmed down” Queen’s Speech.

He said: “There is no point in sailing ahead with items that were in the manifesto that we won’t get through parliament.”

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson – seen as a likely contender for the Tory leadership – called on Conservative MPs to “get behind” Mrs May.

He sent a WhatsApp message to Commons colleagues urging them to “calm down” and “stop the narrative” that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “somehow won this thing”.

He described Mrs May as a “woman of extraordinary qualities” who had “won more votes than anyone since Margaret Thatcher”.

George Osborne had earlier said the Foreign Secretary was in a “permanent leadership campaign”.