Theresa May Seeks Business Support for Her Brexit Deal. But Will It Be Enough?

November 19, 2018, 9:52 AM UTC

Theresa May will appeal to business leaders to help deliver her Brexit deal, as she fights implacable opposition in Parliament and a possible leadership challenge.

The embattled prime minister will address the Confederation of British Industry in London on Monday, trying to sell a withdrawal agreement that few even in her Conservative Party think is ideal. Meanwhile some of her lawmakers are campaigning to get rid of her, and even members of her Cabinet are openly discussing trying to rewrite the text.

She’ll be speaking after:

The Sun says 42 lawmakers have sent letters saying they no longer support her. In theory, another six MPs are needed to meet the threshold to trigger a formal leadership challenge. The story contained no live comment from Conservative MP Graham Brady, the only person who’d know for sure. The EU wants to limit any extension of the transition period to the end of 2022. The U.K.’s position isn’t yet clear. Any extension will depend on the U.K. sticking to the terms of its exit deal. May said she’ll go to Brussels to lead talks herself; there are still disagreements about the non-binding text on the future relationship, including economic and security ties.

The arithmetic for May getting her deal through Parliament — where she doesn’t have a majority and faces opposition on all sides — looks extremely difficult. She aims to fix her problem by winning business support for her plan.

You Do the Math: Can May Get Her Brexit Deal Through Parliament?

Businesses are already starting to come out in favor, as they fear the alternative is a chaotic no-deal exit that would deprive them of what they have fought hardest to secure — a two-year transition period to give them time to adjust. Business also likes the deal for the same reason the pro-Brexit hardliners hate it: The agreement points to a future relationship of close economic ties and something very similar to the customs union.

‘Go Back to Your Constituencies’

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, said on Sunday that lawmakers thinking of voting against it should go and talk to businesses in their districts. She said the deal opens the path to the “frictionless trade” companies want.

“Listen to the businesses in your constituencies,” she urged lawmakers in a Sky News interview. “Go out and talk to people and ask whether they think it’s now time to move on.”

If the prime minister does find a way to get her deal through, it won’t so much be because anyone in Parliament likes her plan but because the alternatives are viewed as worse — the argument May has made herself. One sign of success for this strategy came when she said that — to the best of her knowledge — the number of Conservative lawmakers challenging her leadership hadn’t yet reached the required threshold to force a vote.

Not About Me

“This isn’t about me, it’s about what’s right for the country, and as far I’m concerned we’re not going to be distracted from this important job in this critical week of negotiations,” May told Sky News. “A change of leadership at this point isn’t going to make the negotiations any easier, and it’s not going to change the parliamentary arithmetic. What it will do is bring in a degree of uncertainty.”

The one person who does know how many Tories have written letters demanding a confidence vote — which requires 48 — is the man they write to: Brady, the chairman of the Conservative 1922 Committee. In a BBC radio interview on Sunday, he didn’t sound like someone on the brink of unleashing political chaos. He joked about trying not to count out loud when he was shopping, for fear of being misunderstood. And he said that while he had his own doubts about what May had negotiated, he didn’t think replacing her would help.

So far the number of Tories on record as having submitted letters is 23, though Sunday newspapers reported that others had done so in secret.

Even Dominic Raab, who resigned as Brexit Secretary last week and will vote against the deal, said that he wouldn’t be submitting a letter. “All of this leadership stuff is a total distraction from the historic moment that we’re at,” he said on the “Andrew Marr Show” on the BBC.