Theresa May faces divided party as Conservative conference begins

Britain must stop “re-fighting” the Brexit referendum and should unite as the deadline to leave the  European Union  draws closer, its trade minister Liam Fox said.

At the annual Conservative party conference, which began in Birmingham on Sunday, Fox said that calls for a second referendum or “People’s Vote” on the final Brexit agreement would put democracy at risk.

“We must stop re-fighting the referendum and come together to honour the democratic will of the British people or we will risk undermining faith in that democratic system itself,” said Fox.

“The decisions we take in the coming days and months will profoundly shape our relationship with the European Union and the world beyond as we develop a vision of a truly global Britain.”

Trade is one of the key issues still to be agreed upon before the United Kingdom leaves the EU on March 29, 2019. 

In July, British Prime Minister Theresa May presented the so-called “Chequers agreement“, which laid out UK government’s plans for the post-Brexit relationship with the EU.

The plan has been criticised in both Westminster and Brussels, where European Council President Donald Tusk dismissed the proposal, saying “it won’t work”.

Fox said that if the EU did not like the proposals, it should offer an alternative. 

A political rift 

Many consider the Conservative conference a test of May’s leadership and her vision of what a post-Brexit future will look like for the UK. 

“Dissatisfaction across party lines towards [May’s] Chequers plan makes it possible that she won’t survive in her current position, and that a vote of no-confidence could be raised against her government in the coming months,” Kai Loyens, current developments analyst at Foreign Brief, a geopolitical risk analysis website, told Al Jazeera.

“There is also still wrangling in the Conservative party on the UK position towards accepting any EU regulations on trade in a future relationship,” he said.

Al Jazeera’s Sonia Gallego, reporting from Birmingham, said ‘Remainers’ in the Conservative party have warned of a “polite rebellion”, but some pro-Brexit MPs and members are also opposing May’s plan.

“If she had harboured any hopes of there being a unified front at this conference, then they must have been quite dashed,” she said.

“MPs who are so against … the Chequers plan are absolutely determined. They have said that this is a plan that is dead in the water, that it would be akin to the UK being like a “vassal state”, as one MP put it.”

Ahead of the conference, May accused those who refuse to back the Chequers plan of “playing politics” and said on Sunday that she would make a success of Brexit regardless of the outcome of talks with the EU.

Environment Minister Michael Gove, a prominent campaigner for Brexit, said on Sunday that he supports Chequers, adding that the UK won’t lower its high environmental or animal health standards in order to secure trade deals after the divorce.

One of the Chequers agreement’s most prominent critics, former Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who resigned over the plan, lashed out against the proposal in an interview with British newspaper, the Sunday Times, published on Sunday.

Johnson called the plan “deranged” and “entirely preposterous” and said that it will cause economic and political damage to the UK.

The Conservative party and its membership are divided over May’s Brexit plan [Toby Melville/Reuters]

At the opposition Labour party‘s annual conference held in Liverpool earlier this month, members voted to back a new referendum, which could include the option to remain in the EU if parliament rejects May’s final Brexit deal.

“Nobody is ruling out ‘Remain’ as an option,” Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit minister said on Tuesday. 

May is due to speak on the final day of the conference on Wednesday.

Additional reporting by Charlotte Mitchell: 

SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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