While Prime Minister Theresa May is doggedly defending her Brexit plan, delegates at her party’s annual conference have joined the EU in writing it off — and suggest her own time in office is limited.
Conservative party members queued for two hours on Sunday to see leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg denounce May’s “Chequers plan” for close economic ties with the EU, one of half a dozen events he is addressing in Birmingham.
Across town, several Tory Eurosceptic MPs joined former UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage in demanding a clean break with the EU, at a rally attended by around 500 people waving British flags.
Similar crowds are expected at a conference event on Tuesday with former minister Boris Johnson, a rival for May’s job who has condemned her plan as “deranged”.
“The prime minister is completely out of touch with the majority of party members,” Michael Wilkins, 53, told AFP at the rally, seated near a giant poster saying “Save Brexit”.
Many eurosceptic Tories want May to ditch her plan for Britain to follow EU rules for goods, and instead secure a looser free trade agreement for after Brexit in March next year.
May insists her way is the only one that protects manufacturing supply lines and keeps open the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
After EU leaders in Salzburg last month rejected the plan, she demanded they show her “respect” in a defiant statement that went down well with party members.
“It was the sort of vigour we have been wanting to see from her,” said Alexandra Philips, a former UKIP member who is now a member of the Conservatives.
Listen to the people
Many of her critics have accused May of a lack of enthusiasm over Brexit, citing the fact she opposed leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum.
“It is stupid that after the biggest vote we have had in British history, we’ve got someone in charge who didn’t believe in it,” said Stuart Lloyd, 50, from near Birmingham, at the rally.
He backed Johnson as a new leader, and “if not him, someone with those kind of views”.
Inside the conference centre, among the stalls for Conservative key rings, coasters and tea towels, discussion of Brexit and May’s future is on everybody’s lips.
“I don’t want Chequers, it keeps us part of the common market. We want a clean break,” said Imelda Dixon, 71, from Derby in central England, sitting with her husband Alan.
She accused May of failing to acknowledge the reality around her, saying: “It’s the general election all over again. Me, me, me — I just want her to listen to the people, but she’s not.”
During the campaign for last year’s disastrous snap election, in which the Conservatives lost their parliamentary majority, May refused to accept she had made a mistake in a key policy on social care.
However, many delegates are wary of the chaos it might unleash to change leaders now.
“I think it’s got to wait until after Brexit,” said one, 72-year-old Alan Dixon.
Acting like children
May gave a speech and took questions in a private meeting with delegates on Sunday morning, and one party member said she had changed his mind.
“I’m not a great fan of Chequers but after hearing her, I’m prepared to give her a chance,” said Martin Williams, a 32-year-old councillor in Somerset, western England.
He added: “I’m a great supporter of Boris but… we need to stop acting like children.
“There will be plenty of time for people to think about their futures, but now is not the time.”
Outside the conference centre, hundreds of people holding signs saying “Bollocks to Brexit” and “It’s not too late” held a march calling for a second referendum.
One protester, former Conservative London councillor Nicholas McLean, lamented the influence hardliners had on his party.
“Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, there’s a long list of people who see the issue from a blinkered point of view, not at all realistic — they have betrayed the party,” he told AFP.