BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May appealed to her Conservative Party on Wednesday to unite behind her plan to leave the European Union, warning critics their arguments could put Brexit in jeopardy.
On the final day of her party’s annual conference, May sought to rally members by addressing their concerns that the Conservatives are becoming increasingly directionless under the weight of Brexit, urging them to look to a brighter future.
Dancing onto the stage in the city of Birmingham to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and a standing ovation, May poked fun at herself after her dance moves were mocked on a trip to Africa and after last year’s conference when her speech was disrupted by a coughing fit, a stage intruder and a collapsing background set.
It was a warm welcome for a leader whose fragile position at the helm of her party has come under further pressure after the EU rejected parts of her so-called Chequers plan and critics stepped up calls for her to ditch her strategy on Brexit, Britain’s most far-reaching policy shift for more than 40 years.
With just six months before Britain is due to exit the EU, she has so far weathered the Brexit storm, shrugging off a barnstorming speech by her ex-foreign minister Boris Johnson that did little to hide his leadership ambitions.
On Wednesday, May was keen to show she was in charge of the Brexit talks.
“If we all go off in different directions in pursuit of our own vision of the perfect Brexit, we risk ending up with no Brexit at all,” she said, a rebuff to eurosceptic lawmakers who have published their alternatives plan for leaving the EU.
“And there’s another reason why we need to come together. We are entering the toughest part of the negotiations...If we stick together and hold our nerve, I know we can get a deal that delivers for Britain.”
She also tried to return to the message she gave when she was appointed prime minister in 2016, promising to help those who feel “left behind” and pledging to end her government’s austerity push after nearly a decade of spending cuts.
And in another rallying cry for unity, she repeatedly attacked the main opposition Labour Party, saying their policies, including a renationalisation of mail, rail and utilities, would mean increased taxes and business flight.
Hard-left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, she said, would “outsource our conscience to the Kremlin”.
Her words were aimed at easing the growing frustration of some Conservatives who openly say their party is meandering without substantive new ideas, unable to set an agenda amid their divisive feuds over how to depart the EU.
The heat she faces from some in the party was underlined less than an hour before her speech when Conservative lawmaker James Duddridge said he had submitted a letter calling on her to resign. Forty-eight such letters are needed to trigger a vote of confidence in the leader.
Her spokesman declined to comment on Duddridge’s move.
But Wednesday’s speech seemed to have gone down well among the party faithful.
Jeremy Hunt, her foreign minister, said on Twitter: “Congratulations Theresa May for a remarkable speech delivered with humour and passion. Firmness of purpose, clarity and conviction - EU friends do not underestimate!”
Pro-Brexit party activist Paul Whitehouse told Reuters: “She did enough to rally the grassroots and that will be momentum enough for cracks to be paved over to a certain extent.”
Taking a swipe at hardline eurosceptic Johnson, May said she was making decisions on Brexit in the “national interest” - a nod to her argument that her former foreign secretary’s alternative Brexit proposals would tear the United Kingdom apart by placing Northern Ireland under EU customs rules and thereby detaching it from the rest of Britain.
“It is no surprise that we have had a range of different views expressed this week,” May said. “But my job as prime minister is to do what I believe to be in the national interest.”
With no agreement with the bloc over the terms of divorce or a future trade relationship, the last day of the conference marked the beginning of what some officials predict will be a frenzied couple of weeks of diplomacy between London and Brussels as the two sides try to pin down a deal.
May and her team face weeks of difficult conversations with Brussels, especially after Hunt offended some in the bloc by comparing the EU to the old Soviet Union in asserting that the EU was trying to “punish” any member seeking to leave it.
“Brexit fans have their backs to the wall,” said Franziska Brantner, European affairs spokeswoman for Germany’s Greens party. “Blaming the EU won’t help them.”
At home it won’t be any easier.
May faces challenges from her own party and from the small party propping up her minority government, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which has repeated that it will not accept a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
In her speech, May stuck to her plan, but did not call it by its moniker - Chequers - named after the prime ministerial country residence where she hashed out the proposals in July.
“So this is our proposal. Taking back control of our borders, laws and money. Good for jobs, good for the Union. It delivers the referendum, it keeps faith with the British people.”
Additional reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Mark Heinrich