Prime minister Theresa May came under fire from all sides in Britain’s fractious political landscape on Thursday as she warmed to an EU plan in Brussels to extend the post-Brexit transition period.
Hardcore Brexit backers and pro-EU loyalists alike rounded on the premier after she said she was considering keeping Britain in line with the European Union for months longer, by extending a transition period until December 2021.
Several heavyweight Brexiteers in May’s governing Conservative Party wrote a joint open letter, warning May she would never be forgiven if Brexit results in ‘surrender’.
The letter was signed by former foreign secretary Boris Johnson and ex-Brexit secretary David Davis — their first joint intervention after resigning in July over May’s Brexit blueprint, which would keep Britain close to the EU on trade.
They insisted Britain must avoid the ‘purgatory of perpetual membership of the EU’s customs union’.
The British public would not forgive the potential gains of Brexit being ‘sacrificed because of EU bullying and the government’s desperation to secure a deal’, they said.
Britain is due to leave the EU in March 2019.
Striking a Brexit deal that a majority feel happy with was always going to be a tough task, but few are enthusiastically rallying round May’s negotiation.
Conservative ‘soft Brexit’ backer Nick Boles summed up the situation.
‘She is losing the confidence now of colleagues of all shades of opinion,’ he told BBC radio.
Conservative MP Nadine Dorries said a longer transition period was simply ‘stalling’, and called for Davis to take over.
‘It’s time to stand aside and let someone who can negotiate, get on with it and deliver,’ she tweeted.
Davis previously led Britain’s negotiations to leave the EU but quit his role as Brexit Secretary in July last year.
Economist Intelligence Unit analyst Danielle Haralambous said any transition extension would be a ‘hard sell’ to ‘increasingly restless’ Brexiteers.
‘May is testing the water by saying that she is open to an extension, but her proposal for one only as a fallback option and only for a few months, reflects her concerns about the political backlash,’ she said.
The next general election is scheduled for May 2022 and so May also has an incentive to ensure Brexit is ‘wrapped up well before’, the analyst added.
May’s critics are not limited to her own party or hardcore Brexiteers, with pro-EU voices weighing in.
London mayor Sadiq Khan, from the main opposition Labour Party, denounced where May’s negotiation was leading the country.
‘The options on the table are now limited to Theresa May’s proposed bad deal for Britain or no deal at all — both of which would be disastrous,’ he said.
‘The ongoing chaos, infighting and ineptitude shows exactly why it’s so crucial that the British public get the opportunity to have their say on the final deal.’
Khan is among the planned speakers at a London rally on Saturday calling for a second Brexit referendum.
The anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats said extending the transition was another ‘embarrassing climbdown’ for May.
‘The blame for this mess falls squarely at the prime minister’s feet,’ said the party’s Brexit spokesman Tom Brake.
‘No deal the PM can secure will be as good as staying in the EU.’
The knives were also out in the press.
The Sun, Britain’s Brexit-backing and biggest-selling newspaper, said the latest EU ‘ruse is an insult she must repel’.
‘The proposal to keep us shackled to the EU for another year beyond the transition period is an outrageous non-starter,’ the tabloid said.
Meanwhile the Brexit-cheerleading UK Independence Party were also left fuming.
‘Mrs May’s Brexit betrayal slowly slithers into view,’ said UKIP leader Gerard Batten.
‘This is a play to normalise ‘transition’ indefinitely until a time when the establishment can call the whole thing off.’
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