LONDON >> With crucial German and French elections out of the way, this was the moment when talks on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union were supposed to get serious.
Yet, while things look steadier in Berlin and Paris, Britain is suffering repeated aftershocks from last year’s referendum decision to quit the 28-nation bloc, the latest of them threatening to engulf its prime minister, Theresa May, who is fresh off a calamitous, accident-strewn speech Oct. 4.
Today, May, who presides over a warring Cabinet, faced down a coup attempt from a group of her own lawmakers after the debacle at her Conservative Party’s annual conference, where her speech was interrupted by a prankster and she was plagued by a persistent cough and a malfunctioning stage set.
“You can’t just carry on when things aren’t working,” Grant Shapps, a former chairman of the party, told the BBC, as he called for May to stand aside. “The solution is not to bury heads in the sand,” added Shapps, who claimed to have support from around 30 fellow plotters, including five former Cabinet ministers.
But it was not at all clear that a change of leadership could help resolve the arguments over Brexit, as the withdrawal is known, that are tearing apart the Conservatives, or that it would leave the government any more prepared to negotiate with the European Union.
The week was in almost all respects the worst of all worlds for May and the beleaguered Tories. As the pound sterling sank amid the political chaos and increasingly downbeat economic news, May’s desperate political weakness risked undermining her credibility as a negotiating partner.
“In the European Union they are looking at this in an incredulous way, wondering how they are managing to go so deep into chaos,” said Ulrike Franke, a policy fellow in Berlin for the European Council on Foreign Relations, a research institute, adding that Britain’s political problems would be amusing if they were not so serious.
The continental news media, too, have noticed that the British government is falling apart. Germany’s Bild newspaper described May as a “laughingstock,” headlining another article: “Brexit-Lady gone by Christmas?”
The more cerebral Süddeutsche Zeitung noted that May “was damaged and she will stay so until she fails, gives up or someone dares to come out of the wood,” adding: “This moment may come soon.”
May had intended to use her party conference speech to relaunch her leadership after she gambled by calling an early general election in June, and lost both her parliamentary majority and her personal authority.
At the election May asked voters to endorse her “strong and stable leadership” and — that slogan having turned speedily into a bad joke — on Friday she offered “calm” leadership as she insisted she was staying in Downing Street.
The mood in her party is anything but calm, however, and on Friday Cabinet ministers moved to shore up the prime minister. Those doing so included the environment secretary, Michael Gove, whose track record for loyalty has been spotty to put it mildly. (Gove was described as a “political serial killer” last year after breaking first with the previous prime minister, David Cameron, a friend, and then with his pro-Brexit ally Boris Johnson.)
The Cabinet is divided between those who want a clean break with the European Union — a hard Brexit — and those who hope for a softer departure to cushion the economy. When a consensus started to emerge from the Cabinet, before a speech last month by May in Florence, Italy, Johnson, the foreign secretary, undermined it by outlining his own, more hard-line and upbeat vision of Brexit in a 4,000-word article.
May’s supporters believe she can stay in power until March 2019, when Britain quits.
They point out that a leadership contest before then would risk reigniting a public fight over Europe, and would raise pressure to hold a general election, which the Conservatives might lose to a resurgent, left-wing opposition Labour Party.
It would also take weeks out of the tight timetable to negotiate Brexit, and the idea that those talks could be paused to allow the Conservatives to resolve their leadership crisis is dismissed by analysts, including Franke, who described it as neither legally nor politically plausible.
The Florence speech appeared to give some new momentum to the talks, but so volatile is the situation in London that continental Europeans are wondering how much longer they will be dealing with May. Even if she survives, they fear she may be unable to deliver on any agreement she strikes.
Joachim Fritz-Vannahme, director of the Europe program at the Bertelsmann Foundation, a research institute based in Germany, believes the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, is sitting back, waiting for the Conservative government to implode.
“Why should they start to shape some better progress in the negotiation, at a crucial moment, when you have May’s leadership put into question, and the little blond pirate buccaneering about?” asked Fritz-Vannahme, referring, colorfully, to Johnson.
Fritz-Vannahme believes that the focus of attention in Berlin is less on helping to broker a deal with Britain than on renewing Germany’s ties with France. That is part of a larger push to stabilize the European Union after its own euro and immigration crises and following the shock of Brexit and the growing separatist problems in Catalonia.
In London, the problem for those plotting against May is that they have neither the numbers to force a contest nor a credible alternative candidate. For some, the ideal scenario would be the coronation of a successor by party bigwigs, without a bloody leadership contest. But there is no obvious figure to crown.
Johnson, for one, would be unlikely to acquiesce in the appointment of a consensus candidate unless the candidate were him. And there seems little chance of that: The foreign secretary has long been unpopular with many of his colleagues in Parliament, and his recent behavior has only made matters worse.
Yet, the Conservative Party is taking a political battering, and keeping May might not work either.
At some point soon, providing she stays in the job, she will have to decide what type of Brexit deal she will seek. But that, unless she is willing to risk significant short-term economic damage that a hard Brexit would almost certainly entail, will involve upsetting her most ardent Brexit supporters.
“Such an outcome will be difficult for hard-line Brexiteers to stomach and will inevitably provoke speculation that Johnson will resign,” wrote Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the risk consultancy Eurasia Group, in an analysis.
“May will also have trouble selling such a deal to about 60 Tory MPs,” he added, referring to Conservative members of Parliament, noting that confronted with a deal of that sort, they might deploy the nuclear option of “calling a vote of confidence in her premiership.”