LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May won support for her beleaguered Brexit deal Friday from key politicians and business groups, but she remained besieged by internal party opponents determined to oust her.
In a tumultuous week, May finally clinched a divorce deal with the European Union — only for it to be savaged by the political opposition, her parliamentary allies and large chunks of her own Conservative Party. Two Cabinet ministers and a handful of junior government members resigned, and grumbles about her leadership erupted into a roar.
Friday brought some respite, as supportive Cabinet ministers rallied around her. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, a prominent pro-Brexit voice in Cabinet, threw May a lifeline by urging rebels to “take a rational and reasonable view of this.”
“Ultimately I hope that across Parliament we’ll recognize that a deal is better than no deal,” he said.
Britain’s Conservatives have been divided for decades over Britain’s membership in the EU, and the draft withdrawal agreement has infuriated the most strongly pro-Brexit members, who want the country to make a clean break with the bloc. They say the draft agreement, which calls for close trade ties between the U.K. and the EU, would leave Britain a vassal state, bound to rules it has no say in making.
The deal drove a group of disaffected Brexiteers to try to topple May by submitting letters saying they have lost confidence in her leadership. They are aiming for the magic number of 48 — the 15
After a day of conflicting
He suggested the threshold might be reached “sometime next week.”
If May lost her job as party leader, she would also lose her position as prime minister. But winning a leadership vote could strengthen her position, because the rules say she can’t be challenged again for a year.
Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, one of May’s chief allies, predicted that “if it does come to a challenge, the prime minister will win handsomely.”
“I’ve seen no plausible alternative plan from any of those criticizing her or wanting to challenge her position,” Lidington said.
May got another piece of good news when Environment Secretary Michael Gove decided not to follow two Cabinet colleagues and quit over the divorce deal.
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey quit Thursday, saying they could not support the agreement. Like them, Gove was a strong supporter of the “leave” campaign in Britain’s 2016 EU membership referendum.
Gove said Friday that he “absolutely” had confidence in May, adding that he would work with government colleagues to achieve “the best future for Britain.” But he did not answer when asked if he supported May’s Brexit deal.
May replaced Raab and McVey on Friday with two lawmakers with track records of loyalty. Former junior Health Minister Stephen Barclay replaced Raab as Brexit secretary, while ex-Interior Minister Amber Rudd was named to the work and pensions post.
But May’s Cabinet still contains tensions and potential fissures. Some pro-Brexit ministers, including House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom and International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, have not resigned but also have not publicly endorsed May’s deal.
May is determined to fight on, warning that abandoning her Brexit plan, with Britain’s withdrawal just over four months away on March 29, would plunge the country into “deep and grave uncertainty.”
She appealed directly to voters Friday by answering questions on a radio call-in show. It was not an easy ride. One caller said May should resign and let a more staunchly pro-Brexit politician take over; another compared her to Neville Chamberlain, the 1930s prime minister who tried in vain to appease Nazi Germany to avoid war.
May stood by her plan.
“For a lot of people who voted ‘leave,’ what they wanted to do was make sure that decisions on things like who can come into this country would be taken by us here in the U.K., and not by Brussels, and that’s exactly what the deal I’ve negotiated delivers,” she said.
Businesses, which fear the turmoil that could follow a disorderly Brexit, have largely welcomed the withdrawal deal. The Confederation of British Industry, a leading business lobby group, said the agreement represented “hard-won progress.”
In a statement, the group said the withdrawal agreement “opens a route to a good long-term trade deal.”
It warned that leaving the EU without a deal on trade and other relations — a path advocated by some Brexit supporters — “is not an acceptable option” and “would badly damage our economy by disrupting supply chains, causing shortages, and preventing vital services reaching people.”
Simon Kempton of the Police Federation, a union for police officers, said a “no-deal” Brexit could spark protests, and “it’s a real concern that those protests might escalate into disorder.”
“It’s 2018. It’s the year that people dial (emergency number) 999 because KFC ran out of chicken,” he told Sky News. “If that will happen, imagine what will happen if we start seeing food or medical supply shortages.”
EU leaders, who have called a Nov. 25 summit in Brussels to sign off on the draft agreement, were doing their best to refrain from commenting on Britain’s political chaos.
But they stressed that the U.K. should not hope to renegotiate the deal — it is a take-it-or-leave-it offer.
“This is a withdrawal agreement which took the best part of two years to negotiate involving 28 countries, all of whom have their own particular concerns and interests,” said Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. “If you start trying to amend it or unthink it, you might find that the whole thing unravels.”
Associated Press writers Pan Pylas in London and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.
Jill Lawless, The Associated Press
‘Freedom Convoy’ organizers’ trial on scheduled break until after Thanksgiving
Tamara Lich arrives for her trial at the courthouse in Ottawa, on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. Lich and fellow Freedom Convoy organizer Chris Barber are charged with mischief, obstructing police, counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
The trial of “Freedom Convoy” organizers Tamara Lich and Chris Barber has begun a scheduled break that will continue until after Thanksgiving.
The court finished hearing the testimony of Serge Arpin, the chief of staff to Ottawa’s former mayor, on Friday.
He spoke about how the city responded to the protest that overwhelmed the downtown core for three weeks in early 2022.
Arpin also testified about his interactions with convoy organizers while working out a deal with former mayor Jim Watson to move big-rig trucks out of residential neighbourhoods.
The evidence was originally due to be wrapping up by this point in the trial, which had been scheduled to last 16 days, but Arpin is just the fourth witness to finish his testimony.
The trial was expected to hear from 22 witnesses, leaving the court to ponder how much more time will be needed to reach the finish line.
Justice Heather Perkins-McVey, who is overseeing the trial, has identified several dates in October and November.
Lawrence Greenspon, the lawyer representing Lich, said he does not want to set new court dates until the Crown has established a new, more accurate time estimate for its case.
As of Friday, the trial is expected to resume Oct. 11.
Lich and Barber are charged with mischief and counselling others commit offences such as mischief and intimidation for their role in organizing and prolonging the demonstration.
The defence questioned Arpin Friday about how city council and staff attempted to put an end the protest. As the mayor’s chief of staff, Arpin told the court he sat in on every council meeting.
He was grilled about a bylaw change on Feb. 9 last year that banned idling in a vehicle unless the temperature fell at or below -15 C. The bylaw originally allowed idling if the temperature was below 5 C.
“City council … was attempting to freeze out the truckers and their families,” Greenspon told the court.
Arpin said he believed the intention was to bring the demonstration to an end.
Arpin was also involved in the deal between Watson, Lich and other organizers to move trucks out of residential neighbourhoods and onto Wellington Street, in front of Parliament Hill.
He texted back and forth with the convoy organizers’ lawyer Keith Wilson on Feb. 14 and 15 in an exchange that was filed as evidence in the trial.
The texts suggest city staff did not give protest organizers or their lawyers a heads-up about plans to file a court injunction against demonstrators who violated city bylaws.
“Just so you know, it is highly irregular for the city’s lawyers to have done this without providing us lawyers here with notice,” Wilson wrote to Arpin on Feb. 15.
“This could change everything.”
Arpin told Wilson he was under the impression they knew about the court filing, but said in court that he never informed them himself until after the injunction was granted by a judge.
Lawyers representing the convoy organizers were not given an opportunity to oppose the application in court at the time.
The deal between Lich and the mayor fell apart later that day when police would no longer allow trucks to move closer to Parliament.
Arpin confirmed the police service underwent a change in command that day as a result of the police chief’s resignation.
He apologized to Wilson at the time, the text messages show.
“Our goal has always been de-escalation and I know you share this goal,” he texted to Wilson on the 16th.
The Crown hopes to pick up its case in October with eight local witnesses from Ottawa who lived or worked downtown during the Freedom Convoy protest.
Lich and Barber have already admitted that there was mischief taking place in the protest zone.
Greenspon has argued that the testimony of those witnesses would be akin to victim impact statements, and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to be heard during the trial.
B.C. premier suspects Ottawa holding back information about foreign interference
A flock of birds flies past as Moninder Singh, front right, a spokesperson for the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council (BCGC), waits to speak to reporters outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Sahib in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, September 18, 2023, where temple president Hardeep Singh Nijjar was gunned down in his vehicle while leaving the temple parking lot in June. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
British Columbia Premier David Eby said he “strongly” suspects that the federal government is holding back information that could help the province protect its residents who have connections to India from foreign interference.
Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc has reached out, saying Ottawa wants to make sure the provincial government has the details it needs to keep B.C. residents safe, “but there has not been good information sharing,” the premier said Friday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed in Parliament on Monday that Canadian intelligence services were investigating “a potential link” between the Indian government and the fatal shooting of Sikh advocate Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C., last June.
In response to the killing, Eby said on Friday that the priority should be protecting the criminal prosecution process so people can be held accountable for the killing.
But on the broader issue of ensuring community safety, he said there’s “a long way to go to share that information.”
Eby said people in B.C. have been “feeling pressure from India,” and he believes Ottawa has information through agencies including the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that could help respond to foreign interference.
The premier’s initial statement in response to Trudeau’s announcement called on Ottawa to “share all relevant information” related not only to foreign interference, but also to “transnational organized crime threats” in the province.
He said Friday that the prime minister had reached out before telling Parliament about the probe based on “credible” information about the potential link between India and Nijjar’s killing.
Eby accepted Trudeau’s offer for a briefing by CSIS, but everything the premier knows about the situation is “in the public realm,” he said.
“I expressed my frustration in the meeting with the CSIS director about our inability to get more concrete information,” Eby said.
He made the remarks during a media question-and-answer session after addressing local politicians at the Union of BC Municipalities conference.
Eby said he understands there may need to be reform around the law governing CSIS in order for the agency to share the kind of information he’s looking for.
“If that’s what’s required, let’s make it happen, because the only way that we’re going to make traction on this is by the federal government trusting the provincial government with information and being able to act on it in our local communities,” he said.
Nijjar was a prominent supporter of the Khalistan separatism movement that advocates for a Sikh homeland in India’s Punjab province. He had been working to organize an unofficial referendum among the Sikh diaspora on independence from India at the time of his killing.
India designated Nijjar as a terrorist in 2020, an accusation he had denied.
Canada and India expelled each other’s diplomats in the fallout of Trudeau’s announcement, and India has halted visa services in Canada.
India’s government has denied the accusation as “absurd and motivated.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2023.
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