Chaos at Westminster: Conservative party facing pending Brexit deadline, internal conflicts

Written by on July 18, 2018 — The controversial visit by President Donald Trump and his bombshell interview criticizing his host wasn’t the only headache for British Prime Minister Theresa May in recent days.

This week saw chaotic scenes in the House of Commons as the ruling Conservative party threatened its own rebellious MPs with a general election in order to whip them into line and vote for a vital bill on exiting the European Union (E.U.).

Here’s a rundown of what’s going on and how these changes are raising questions of whether or not Prime Minister Theresa May will remain in power much longer.

The Brexit drama causing bigger dramas

One of the biggest problem issues facing the British government today is what to do about the impending Brexit deadline, when the country is slated to leave the E.U. in the wake of the country’s 2016 referendum.

The Conservative party is irrevocably split between ideological differences over Britain’s relationship with the E.U.

Many Conservative politicians and stalwarts were staunchly opposed to E.U. membership from the signing of the first treaty and have been working for Brexit ever since. Meanwhile other Tories, as the Conservatives are also known, strongly favor a Brexit deal that maintains close alignment with the E.U. in order to protect jobs and access to the E.U. market.

The clash between the two sides risks the government failing to pass bills proposing what forms the Brexit will take (pending E.U. agreement).

These internal conflicts have led to the resignation of several high-profile ministers, including David Davis, who was the Secretary of State for Exiting the E.U., and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who resigned just days before Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom. Johnson is widely seen as a rival to the prime minister, though right after his resignation he publicly denied interest in vying for the role.

How is May handling the chaos?

May’s minority government means that she has a razor-thin majority in parliament – a split that is even more pronounced on Brexit, given the number of Conservative members of parliament who strongly favor a closer relationship with the E.U. than the prime minister is currently pursuing.

The presence of a separate group of members of parliament (MPs), who are strongly Euro-sceptic and favor a harsher cut of ties to the E.U., also regularly threaten to vote against their own party, blocking legislation that they see as too “soft” towards the E.U. split.

The fate of several important votes on Brexit legislation this week was unclear.

In order to push as many of her own party’s MPs into line, May sent her whips to threaten them with a vote of no confidence against her – which could trigger a general election and may end up ousting her as prime minister and putting opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn in charge.

The tactic worked, and the government narrowly avoided a damaging defeat that could have sparked a leadership challenge from the Euro-sceptic side of the party.

But the threats of general election have exacerbated the split within the party, with several prominent MPs calling for a “government of national unity” in order to pursue an orderly Brexit.

How the opposition party is handling their own Brexit divide

The Labour party, the left-leaning major party and official opposition, is currently in the midst of its own civil war between its leadership and the ranks.

Corbyn, the Labour party leader, has been an outspoken Euro-sceptic for most of his political career, although he officially was part of a lukewarm campaign for Britain to remain in the E.U. during the vote in 2016.

In spite of his largely Euro-skeptic stance, the majority of the Labour party membership is on the pro-E.U. side of the debate. Labour’s leadership of Corbyn and his allies have dealt with this by adopting a position on Brexit that has not been clearly defined, sparking criticism from pro-E.U. members of parliament who say the opposition should be doing more to keep May in check from pursuing too harsh a split.

Anti-Semitism claims reach a new peak

Beyond their own Brexit drama, Labour is also currently facing a crisis over accusations of entrenched anti-Semitism within the party ever since Corbyn became leader in 2016 after the referendum.

Corbyn is backed by the left-wing side of the party, and in the last two years dozens of its members, councillors and even members of parliament have faced accusations of anti-Semitism. Corbyn has been accused of not taking a tough enough stance on these cases, alongside accusations and criticism against his own conduct.

In 2009 Corbyn described the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah and Palestinian terror group Hamas as “friends” and has reportedly met with activists accused of denying the Holocaust, including Dyab About Jahjah and Paul Eisen.

He has also been a member of several groups on Facebook that shared anti-Semitic posts.

The party’s refusal this month to accept definitions of anti-Semitism as laid out by the advocacy group the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which is adopted across the U.K. government, has attracted widespread criticism.

It sparked an extraordinary show of unity from Britain’s Jewish community as 68 rabbis, many of whom disagree on many topics and some do not even recognize each other as rabbis, formed a coalition to condemn anti-Semitism, attacking Labour’s position.

On Tuesday July 17, Dame Margaret Hodge, Jewish member of parliament, accused Corbyn of being “an anti-Semite and a racist” in the House of Commons chamber. Hodge, whose relatives died in Auschwitz, is to be disciplined by Labour for her comments.

The latest showdown

The various political tensions were apparent today as May faced members of parliament for her weekly grilling session in the House of Commons. It was the last weekly Prime Minister’s Questions before the House breaks for summer holidays, and she faced pressure from both sides.

Corbyn, who is allowed to ask six questions to the Prime Minister, used all of them to focus on Brexit, accusing the government of sinking into a “mire of chaos and division” and that its proposed plans on the exit were not going to work.

She also was asked by a fellow Conservative Andrea Jenkyns, who is against closer ties with the E.U., at what point it was decided that “Brexit means remain?” — implying that May was not respecting the outcome of the vote to leave.

May endured further public criticism of her Brexit strategy from her own benches today as Boris Johnson delivered a resignation statement in the House of Commons, setting out why he could no longer work in her Cabinet.

Boris accused the Prime Minister of “dithering” in E.U. talks and allowing “a fog of self-doubt” to descend.

“We need to take one decision now before all others – and that is to believe in this country and what it can do,” he said.

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