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Plot Claim Highlights May’s Brexit Dilemma With Ministers Split

Plot Claim Highlights May’s Brexit Dilemma With Ministers Split

Theresa May’s fragile hold on her party was yet again on display with her inability to punish a minister who wrongly repeated a claim that independent officials were plotting to keep the U.K. in the European Union.

The suggestion that civil servants — who are expected to be impartial — might be deliberately skewing economic forecasts to influence the outcome of talks with the EU, was as Brexit Minister Steve Baker put it to Parliament: “an extraordinary allegation.” But not one he entirely rejected.

The prime minister’s office said it had “no reason” to doubt Baker, even after the man he cited as his source denied ever saying it. Only when a recording of their conversation was released — and Baker himself had apologized — did May acknowledge that he might have been wrong.

Even then, she insisted the matter was closed.

“What I understand the minister did was to reflect what he thought somebody else had said at a meeting,” May told Channel 5 News at the end of a three-day visit to China. “He has now recalled that was not right. He is going to apologize.”

At the heart of the row is the question of how close a relationship Britain should seek with the EU after Brexit. Baker and others in May’s Conservative Party want maximum distance. The prime minister, without a majority in Parliament or the confidence of her lawmakers, cannot afford to offend them.

Close Ties

But others in her government, including Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, argue for only a “modest” separation from the EU to protect the economy. As this is also the view of most opposition lawmakers, it is the only Brexit position that is likely to win a vote in Parliament.

Unable to confront the so-called Brexiteers, yet unable to deliver the kind of Brexit they want via a vote, May has opted to keep her own position vague.

“She has got these two sides who are diametrically opposed on some issues and it is being kept together,” Conservative lawmaker Johnny Mercer told the BBC on Friday. The prime minister is the “best and the only option” to lead the party, he said, before adding the caveat, “at the moment.”

Asked in Shanghai about economic studies that support closer ties to the EU, May said it might not be a decisive argument.

Will of People

“It’s important of course that the government looks at the analysis that is available,” May told ITV News. “But of course it’s also important that the government does what the British people want us to do — the British people want us to leave the European Union, and that is what we will be doing.”

All sides are arguing their cases in public, while the government’s position frequently depends on which minister is talking. After the Financial Times reported Friday that May’s officials were considering asking the EU for a new customs union, Trade Secretary Liam Fox told Bloomberg this must not happen.

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