May names Brexit secretary amid cabinet departures, no-confidence vote rumours
U.K. PM will oversee final days of negotiations with EU, spokesperson says
British Prime Minister Theresa May won the backing of the most prominent Brexiteer in her government on Friday as she fought to save her draft European Union divorce deal, appointed a new Brexit secretary and battled to stave off a leadership challenge.
More than two years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, it is still unclear how, on what terms or even if it will leave as planned on March 29.
Just hours after announcing that her senior ministers had collectively backed her draft deal, May's premiership was thrust into its most perilous crisis to date when her Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab resigned on Thursday in opposition to it.
Other mutinous lawmakers in her Conservative Party have openly spoken of ousting her and said bluntly that the Brexit deal would not pass Parliament.
But May, who has developed a reputation for weathering crises and has defiantly vowed to stay on as prime minister, got a rare boost on Friday when Michael Gove said he would stay on as environment minister.
Asked if he had confidence in May, Gove, who is famous for sinking former foreign minister Boris Johnson's leadership bid in 2016, told reporters: "I absolutely do."
"I think it's absolutely vital that we focus on getting the right deal in the future, and making sure that in the areas that matter so much to the British people, we can get a good outcome," said Gove, 51, a potential successor to May.
Stephen Barclay, a little-known junior health minister, was appointed as the new Brexit secretary, although the status of the role was downgraded from chief negotiator, with May to lead the completion of talks with the EU.
"He will be doing the domestic role. The PM will be completing the last 10 days of negotiations," May's spokesperson said.
Trade Minister Liam Fox, another leading Brexit supporter, also joined Gove in backing May — but her future remains uncertain.
Leadership challenge imminent?
By seeking to preserve the closest possible ties with the EU, May has upset her party's many advocates of a clean break, and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up her minority government.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that the DUP had demanded May be replaced as prime minister.
"They've raised some questions with us, they've raised some concerns with us, and yes, we are looking at those," May said. "We are still working with the DUP."
Politicians, officials and diplomats in London openly questioned how much time May had left as speculation swirled that a leadership challenge could come soon.
Conservative MP Steve Baker, a prominent euroskeptic, said Friday that rebels in May's party were close to the threshold that would trigger a confidence vote.
If 48 Conservatives submit letters to the so-called 1922 committee, composed of the party's backbench MPs, May would face a vote, requiring a simple majority of the total votes in order to win.
"What's happened is people have been ringing me and telling me that they are putting their letters in ... and I think we're probably not far off," said Baker, a key figure in the Brexit-backing wing of May's party.
"I think it probably is imminent, yes," he told BBC TV.
British bookmakers William Hill said Friday it had reopened betting on the year May will leave office after briefly suspending bets when speculation about a confidence vote emerged.
Raab is the bookmakers' favourite to replace May as the leader of the Conservative Party, ahead of Johnson, the former foreign minister and the figurehead of Britain's Brexit campaign.
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn was favoured as the next prime minister, but this was due to the lack of certainty over May's position as leader of her party, said William Hill's Joe Crilly.
Betting odds for a second vote on Britain's exit from the EU also saw a massive swing as uncertainty looms over whether May's deal would make through Parliament.
The British pound, which has see-sawed on Brexit news since the referendum, was flat at $1.2837 US on Friday, down almost three cents since a deal was struck on Tuesday.
EU to discuss deal Nov. 25
Many fear Brexit will divide the West as it grapples with both the unconventional U.S. presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.
Jo Johnson, who resigned as a minister last week, said the situation marked the worst failure of British statesmanship since the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, when Britain was forced by the United States to withdraw its troops from Egypt.
Amid the political turmoil, the ultimate outcome remains uncertain. Scenarios include May's deal ultimately winning approval, May losing her job, Britain leaving the bloc with no agreement, or even another referendum.
To leave the EU on the terms of her deal, May would need to get the backing of about 320 of parliament's 650 lawmakers. The deal is due to be discussed at an EU summit on Nov. 25.
The EU and Britain need an agreement to keep trade flowing between the world's biggest trading bloc and the United Kingdom, home to the biggest international financial centre.
Proponents of closer relations with the EU in her own party and the Labour opposition say the deal squanders the advantages of membership for little gain.
Supporters of Brexit say that while the divorce might bring some short-term instability, in the longer term it will allow the United Kingdom to thrive and also enable deeper EU integration without such a powerful reluctant member.