British Prime Minister Theresa May neared a deal with a Northern Irish Protestant party to save her premiership on Tuesday as she came under intense pressure to soften her approach to Brexit days before the start of formal EU divorce talks.
May’s botched election gamble, which saw her lose her parliamentary majority, left her so weakened that supporters of closer ties with the European Union publicly demanded she take a more consensual and business-friendly approach to Brexit.
In an attempt to avoid a second election that could deepen Britain’s worst political turmoil since last June’s shock vote to leave the EU, May held talks with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on Tuesday.
She met DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose eurosceptic Northern Irish party has 10 parliamentary seats, for over one hour of talks in Downing Street, though both May and Foster later left through different exits.
“Discussions are going well with the government,” Foster said on Twitter. “We hope soon to be able to bring this work to a successful conclusion.”
A Downing Street spokesman declined to comment.
But a deal with the DUP risks destabilising the political balance in Northern Ireland by increasing the influence of pro-British unionists who have struggled for years with Irish Catholic nationalists who want Northern Ireland to join a united Ireland.
Former Prime Minister John Major said he was concerned a deal with the DUP could thrust the province back towards violence nearly two decades since a U.S.-brokered peace deal brought peace to Northern Ireland.
“The last thing anybody wishes to see is one or other of the communities so aggrieved that the hard men, who are still there lurking in the corners of the communities, decide that they wish to return to some form of violence,” Major told BBC radio.
“I am concerned about the deal. I am wary about it. I am dubious about it,” Major said.
While the DUP are deeply eurosceptic, they have balked at some of the practical implications of a so-called hard Brexit — including a potential loss of a “frictionless border” with the Republic of Ireland — and talks will touch on efforts to minimise the potential damage to Northern Ireland.
With formal EU divorce talks due next week, May heads to France on Tuesday to meet Emmanuel Macron, who last month swept to victory in its presidential election.
During the campaign, May cast herself as the only leader competent enough to navigate the tortuous Brexit negotiations that will shape the future of the United Kingdom and its $2.5 trillion economy.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, which saw its number of parliamentary seats and share of the vote increase, said there could be another election this year or early in 2018 after Thursday’s vote produced no clear winner.
BREXIT CIVIL WAR?
May, who ahead of the June referendum supported remaining in the EU, has promised to start the Brexit talks next week but opponents of a sharp break with the EU took her woes as a chance to push back against her strategy.
Before the election, May proposed a clean break from the EU, involving withdrawal from Europe’s single market, limits on immigration and a bespoke customs deal with the EU.
Brexit minister David Davis has insisted the approach to the EU divorce had not changed, but at the meeting with lawmakers on Monday, May recognised that a broader consensus needed to be built for Brexit and made clear she would listen to all wings of the party on the issue.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said the government should put economic growth at the heart of its Brexit strategy, while some senior ministers have pushed for less focus on immigration and more on jobs.
The Daily Telegraph reported cabinet ministers have opened back-channel talks to senior Labour lawmakers to secure a cross-party agreement on Brexit. When asked about the Daily Telegraph article, Michael Gove, a minister who campaigned for Brexit, told ITV: “This is news to me.”
William Hague, a former leader of the Conservative Party, called for business groups and lawmakers from all parties to be brought in to agree a national position on Brexit.
May’s weakness means she must now listen to all shades of opinion on Brexit as she goes into Britain’s most complex negotiations since World War Two.
But May faces a difficult balancing act: Divisions over Europe helped sink the premierships of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron, and many of her lawmakers and party membership support a sharp break with the EU.
“The Tory civil war on the EU which has ripped it apart since the Maastricht rebellions of the early 1990s, and which the referendum was supposed to solve, is now raging again,” said Chris Grey, an academic who specialises in Brexit at Royal Holloway in London.
Meanwhile Denmark’s finance minister said he hoped the outcome of the British election would lead to a pause to rethink the direction in which the Brexit negotiations were heading.
“After the general election it is very unclear to know exactly what the UK approach to Brexit now will be,” Kristian Jensen said.
German Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, speaking at a
financial conference in Berlin, said his government was aiming for a Brexit deal that would limit negative consequences for the bloc but nor did it want to weaken Britain. He expected London to remain an important financial centre for Europe after Britain had left.
“We want a solution that causes as little damage as possible for both sides,” Schaeuble said.
Schaeuble predicted Britain would later regret its departure from the bloc “and then they’ll come back”.