Theresa May warned her warring Conservative party on Wednesday (3 October) that Brexit may never come to fruition if they do not back her Chequers plan, as she spoke at the party’s annual conference in Birmingham.
The conference has become overshadowed by the party’s divisions on Brexit, with May saying that “if we don’t come together we risk ending up with no Brexit at all”.
“We are entering the toughest stage of the negotiations. What we are proposing is challenging for the EU…if we stick together and hold our nerve I know that we can get a deal that delivers for Britain,” she said.
Having danced to Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ as she walked to the podium, the oft-beleaguered UK Prime Minister struck a far more confident figure as she addressed her party faithful.
Without referring explicitly to her Chequers proposal, which would take the UK outside the EU’s customs union but aligned with single market regulations on goods, but which has been rejected by the EU, May left no doubt that hers was the only option on the table offering veiled rebukes to the alternatives offered by her party’s ‘hard Brexit’ supporters.
She also repeated that the UK could not support the European Commission’s proposed ‘backstop’ to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland.
On Tuesday (2 October), Boris Johnson attempted to rouse the government and delegates to “chuck Chequers” and instead pursue either a free trade deal modelled on the EU-Canada trade pact or a ‘no deal’ scenario with EU-UK trade conducted on WTO terms.
That was rejected by May who stated that “a Brexit that works in 50 years’ time is no good to you if it makes your life harder,” she said.
May insisted that “Britain isn’t afraid to leave with no deal if we have to,” but told delegates that it would carry costs.
“Leaving without a deal – introducing tariffs and costly checks at the border – would be a bad outcome for Britain and the EU,” she said, before adding that “the resilience and ingenuity of the British people would see us through”.
May also ruled out the prospect of another referendum on the terms of Brexit, stating that “we had a people’s vote and the people chose to leave”.
While May’s speech was well received by party delegates and will likely stave off any potential challenges to her leadership, her respite might only be brief.
The next EU summit on 17-18 October has been described by European Council President Donald Tusk as “the real moment of truth” at which leaders will decide whether to hold a special summit in November to finalise an agreement.