UK’s May hangs on after Brexit gambit backfires

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LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May was clinging to power on Thursday after her final Brexit gambit backfired, overshadowing a European election that has shown a United Kingdom still riven over its divorce from the EU.

May’s departure will deepen the Brexit crisis as a new leader is likely to want a more decisive split, raising the chances of a confrontation with the European Union and an election that could usher in a socialist government.

In such a fluid situation, Britain faces an array of options including an orderly exit with a deal, a no-deal exit, an election or a second referendum that could ultimately reverse the 2016 decision to leave the EU.

May, who won the top job in the turmoil that followed the EU referendum, has repeatedly failed to get parliament’s approval for her divorce deal, which she pitched as a way to heal Britain’s Brexit divisions.

Her last gambit, offering a possible second referendum and closer trading arrangements with the EU, triggered a revolt by some Brexit-supporting ministers and triggered the resignation of the minister in charge of her parliamentary business.

On Thursday, with Britons voting in a European election in which pre-poll surveys suggested May’s Conservatives would be thrashed by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, May was digging in.

The chairman of the powerful Conservative 1922 Committee, which can make or break prime ministers, has said May would meet him on Friday to discuss her leadership.

George Osborne, a former Conservative finance minister and now editor of the London Evening Standard newspaper, said on Twitter he had been told that May would then announce she would step down on June 10, after the state visit by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Other newspapers also suggested this was the probable timeline for her departure.

Amid dissent across her party at her latest Brexit proposal, the government delayed the planned publication of legislation to enact her divorce deal from Friday until June 3, in the hope that it could still be put to parliament on June 7.

LISTENING TO CONCERNS

May held separate meetings with her foreign and interior ministers. Amid suggestions that the proposed bill could be rewritten, her spokesman said she would listen to colleagues’ concerns.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that interior minister Sajid Javid had told May he could not vote for the bill because it went further than what senior ministers had agreed to in cabinet.Earlier, foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said May would still be prime minister when Trump arrived for his trip on June 3.

But newspapers said her time was up. The mass-circulation Sun’s front page was headlined “May set to go after Brexit fiasco”, while the Times led with “May prepares to quit after cabinet mutiny”.

EU supporters fear Brexit will undermine Britain’s economy – the fifth-largest in the world – as well as London’s position as one of the world’s top two financial capitals. They also say it will weaken the West as it grapples with Trump’s unpredictable presidency and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.

May, who has been obdurate through one of the most tumultuous premierships of recent British history, had promised to leave office if lawmakers approved her Brexit deal, but is now under intense pressure to name a date.

Sterling, which tumbled on the 2016 Brexit vote to its biggest one-day fall since the early 1970s, dropped 0.4% on Thursday to a new 4-1/2 month low of $1.2605. The yield on Britain’s 10-year bond fell to 0.991%, the lowest since March 29, the day Britain had been due to leave the EU.

SHALL WE STAY OR SHALL WE GO?

Nearly three years after Britain voted by 52% to 48% to leave the EU, it remains unclear how, when or even whether it will leave the European club it joined in 1973. The current deadline to leave is Oct. 31.

When May goes, her Conservative Party will elect a leader who is likely to want to renegotiate the deal she agreed with the EU in November, raising the chances of a confrontation with the bloc and a national election.

The bookmakers’ favourite to succeed May is Boris Johnson, the face of the official campaign to leave the EU, who has said he wants a more decisive split. More than a dozen others are seen as potential candidates.

If there were an election and the Conservatives lost, the winner would be Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran socialist who wants to nationalise swathes of the British economy but has not said what shareholders will get in return. Corbyn also says he wants to take Britain out of the EU.

The Investment bank BNP Paribas said it now saw a 40% probability of Britain leaving the EU without a transition agreement in place.

European election results are expected after 2100 GMT on Sunday.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Kylie MacLellan and William James; Editing by Jon Boyle and Phil BerlowitzOur Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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