By Elizabeth Piper, Kylie MacLellan and William James
BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) – Critics of Theresa May’s Brexit plans stepped up their efforts on Sunday to force the British prime minister to change tack on leaving the European Union, setting the tone for one of the worst-tempered conferences for her Conservative Party.
Her former foreign secretary and former Brexit minister both came out to rubbish her so-called Chequers plan, just six months before Britain is due to leave the EU in the country’s biggest shift in foreign and trade policy in more than 40 years.
Boris Johnson called her plans “deranged” and David Davis said her proposals were “just wrong”, part of a concerted attack on a prime minister whose fragile leadership was undermined further when the EU rejected parts of Chequers this month.
In the central English city of Birmingham, where her party’s conference will run until Wednesday, she faces watching potential rivals parade in front of Conservative members, aware that some in the party believe that she should step aside.
“Unlike the prime minister I campaigned for Brexit,” Johnson, the bookmakers’ favourite to succeed May, told the Sunday Times newspaper.
“Unlike the prime minister I fought for this, I believe in it, I think it’s the right thing for our country and I think that what is happening now is, alas, not what people were promised in 2016.”
Davis, who like Johnson resigned in protest at the Chequers proposals, named after May’s country residence where an agreement with her ministers was hashed out in July, again hit out at the plan, but was less critical of his leader.
May’s Brexit plan was “just wrong”, he told Sky News.
“It just doesn’t do either what the referendum led people to expect, bring back control of laws – it absolutely explicitly doesn’t do that – and it doesn’t bring back control of borders.”
But he also said he thought it was 80-90 percent likely that the government would strike an exit deal with the EU.
May’s team hoped the party’s conference would give her a platform to renew her pledge to help those people who are “just about managing”, trying to pull the focus away from Brexit and on to a domestic agenda.
But her first announcement – for an additional levy on foreign home buyers – did little to reset the conversation, with Sunday dominated again with Brexit, a possible leadership campaign and the prospect of an early election.
Johnson’s interview in the Sunday Times was seen by many in the party to be the start of a campaign to unseat May – something that angered some Conservatives who are critical of the former foreign minister.
And May did find some support.
Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said she still believed May could still manage to win a deal with the EU, and her party chairman, Brandon Lewis, said he believed she could lead into the next election, due in 2022.
Davidson told Sky News that the EU summit in Salzburg had actually “slightly cleared the air actually, we know that officials are working very closely together.”
“I think there is still a basis there for a deal to be done.”