Selling Brexit: Theresa May making last-ditch efforts to sell her proposed deal

TheresaMayBrexitLONDON—There are no stadiums full of placard-waving supporters for British Prime Minister Theresa May these days as she makes a last-ditch effort to sell her Brexit deal – instead, the beleaguered leader the has to make do with a much more lackluster welcome.

Case in point: In a leather factory near Glasgow Wednesday, workers carried on with their business in the background as Mrs. May conducted interviews on camera, more interested in finishing their shift than listening to the prime minister sell her vision of how the country will leave the European Union next year.

As Mrs. May continues her two-day road trip through the Celtic countries of the United Kingdom, starting at a winter fair in Wales, followed by a university in Northern Ireland and finishing up at a factory in Scotland, the many warring sides of the Brexit battle finally have something to agree on – they hate it.

She tried anyway.

Despite the government’s own economic forecasts, speaking to the factory workers in Scotland, the prime minister insisted the deal was a boon for the economy. “It’s a deal that is good for Scottish employers and will protect jobs,” she said.

But many are just not interested in hearing it.

“We’re in a bad place, the economic forecasts suggest we’re not going to be better off with this Brexit deal or any other,” said Thomas Hills, 29, a chemical engineer from North Yorkshire.

Analysts say that if Theresa May’s proposed divorce deal with the European Union goes through, “A lot of people will be left feeling angry, but then a lot of people will be left feeling angry whatever course is taken,” said Tim Oliver, an analyst at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Mrs. May’s whistle-stop tour was designed to whip up enthusiasm for her deal, which will be put to a vote in parliament on Dec. 11, but at best she has gained commiseration rather than outright support.

Brits in the town of Newry in Northern Ireland, which voted to remain in the EU and sits near the frontier with the Republic of Ireland, told The Guardian of their sympathy for the prime minister even though they didn't like the deal.

“It means we’d still be governed by European law. And the backstop could extend to infinity and beyond. We’d be better off with no deal,” said Phil Wallace, 52, a scaffolding contractor in Northern Ireland who supports Brexit. “But I recognise she didn’t have an easy job.”

Some believe that getting the sympathy vote is part of May's strategy, especially with the lukewarm welcome she has received on this cheerleading Brexit tour.

“She is hoping to secure respect for her stoicism in seeing this through. She’s faced numerous resignations, critics, attacks, and failed leadership challenges. Yet she plods on,” said Mr. Oliver.

Meanwhile, while trying to win hearts and minds, she's still facing an uphill battle politically.

The Labour Party, the official opposition to Mrs. May’s government has said they will vote against the deal along with the Scottish Nationalist Party and the Liberal Democrats who want the U.K. to have a second referendum and stay in the EU.

To make matters worse, the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party – who prop up Mrs. May’s minority government – are also refusing to back the deal. Close to 100 lawmakers from both wings of the prime minster’s own Conservative Party have also said they’ll vote against her.

This means it’s almost impossible for Mrs. May’s bill to advance from the House of Commons to the House of Lords, said Mr. Oliver. “The parliamentary arithmetic is too much against it.”

Meanwhile, the arrangement to be voted on Dec. 10 is not the final Brexit deal – it is the terms by which the U.K. will leave the European Union – namely the divorce bill of approximately $49 billion and the rules at the boarder between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the EU.

The future relationship between the U.K. and EU is yet to be negotiated.

Mrs. May’s deal means the U.K. would leave the EU in March 2019 as planned and enter what is known as a transition period.

During the transition stage, the U.K. and EU would negotiate their future relationship, including trade.

“This is in itself a mine field that will drag on and which people in the U.K. have few if any ideas about,” said Mr. Oliver.

President Trump has expressed concern that the deal could mean the U.K. is tied too closely to the EU’s tariff rules to make its own trade deals with other countries such as the United States.

Mrs. May denies this. But even some of Mr. Trump’s fiercest critics here in the U.K. admit that he is correct.

The disdain for what Mrs. May has brought back from Brussels extends beyond the halls of power in Westminster. According to polling company, YouGov, the majority of Brits, regardless of their political persuasion, think May’s Brexit deal does not respect the referendum result.

But the deal’s unpopularity across the political spectrum does not necessarily translate into a desire for Mrs. May to resign.

According to more data from YouGov, just 27 percent of Brits think a different Conservative prime minister could achieve a better deal, which falls to 19 percent for a theoretical Labour prime minister.

Nevertheless, some respect her drive to carry on despite the odds and don’t see any credible alternative.

“Just because someone is bad you can’t replace them with nothing. Show me an alternative Conservative or Labour candidate who could actually slot in and do it instead. There’s no one else,” said Patrick Mason, 40, a software engineer from London.

Photo: Screenshot of UK Prime Minister Theresa May updating the House of Commons on the G20 Summit in Argentina. She told the House: "Once we leave the EU, we can and we will strike ambitious trade deals."
Credit: Courtesy of the UK Prime Minister official Twitter page (12/03/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 12/05/2018

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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