Theresa May faces her first Conservative party conference as leader and prime minister this weekend, as the clock ticks for the UK to trigger ‘Article 50’ beginning its two-year EU exit negotiations.
May, eventually unopposed and thus unelected as Tory leader, has repeatedly said ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and said 2016 will not be a trigger date – a position which is likely to come under scrutiny, even pressure, as the largely Europhobic party meets in Birmingham from Sunday to Wednesday.
Already, her three key ‘Brexit’ ministers have sent out mixed messages on whether the government favours a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit.
A coherent negotiating position needs to be in place ahead of Article 50 in order for London to secure its objectives.
May herself campaigned for ‘Remain’, creating another dilemma at the heart of government, although she has since said shock referendum result is binding.
It is not yet known whether May wants a “hard” Brexit – quickly severing all ties with EU institutions – or a “soft” one, in which access to the European single market could be retained.
Foreign Minister Boris Johnson has said Article 50 will be early next year, though Downing Street has slapped down those comments.
Johnson and the other two ministers central to leaving the EU – Brexit minister David Davis and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox – appear to favour a hard Brexit and have landed in hot water recently for their outspoken comments on this.
As well as Johnson’s comments about triggering Article 50, Downing Street distanced itself from comments by Davis this month that Britain was unlikely to stay in the single market after Brexit negotiations.
Fox, meanwhile, was strongly criticised for saying that British business leaders were “lazy”, “fat” and would rather play golf than build exports.
May is separately under pressure over a key domestic reform to reintroduce selective schooling at age 11 in the UK, popular with some grassroots members of the Conservative party, but opposed by many MPs in her own party, and the opposition Labour party.
And with a double-digit lead in opinion polls over the struggling, Jeremy Corbyn-led, Labour party, she may also face calls to hold an early election, in the hope of increasing the Conservative majority, and giving herself democratic legitimacy.
The next UK election is not scheduled until 2020, but David Cameron stepped down as both prime minister, and later as an MP, after losing the June 23rd referendum.
It is unclear if Cameron will even appear at the Birmingham conference.
Labour does not have a detailed, coherent, position on Brexit, having failed to debate it at their party conference last week.