May's Conservatives heading down open road to Brexit


London (AFP)

Turmoil in the political opposition has given Britain's governing Conservative Party free rein to implement Brexit in its own way, but Prime Minister Theresa May is at the mercy of her own awkward squad, analysts say.

May, who addresses the party's annual conference for the first time as leader on Sunday, is "hugely bolstered by the absence of a strong and meaningful opposition", said Jane Green, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester.

"Had the (main opposition) Labour Party been able to hold the May government to account, we would, I imagine, be seeing more detail on what she is aiming to do" in taking Britain out of the European Union, Green told AFP.

Labour has been embroiled in a bitter leadership contest since Britain's June 23 referendum vote to leave the EU.

It remains in turmoil following the re-election of leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn at its annual conference last week, against the wishes of the vast majority of Labour's members of parliament.

The party is also divided on mass immigration -- the key issue in the referendum.

- Labour demolition mission -

At the Conservatives' annual conference in Birmingham, central England, May should have "one thing in mind: the destruction of the Labour party," said James Frayne, strategy director of the Policy Exchange think-tank.

Her keynote speech, due on Wednesday, "should mark the beginning of a process to completely dominate the political mainstream, pushing the Labour party out to the fringes," he wrote on the Conservative Home website.

May, who became Britain's second woman prime minister in July, has pledged to govern in the inclusive "One Nation" style of conservatism, which dates back to 19th-century premier Benjamin Disraeli.

Reinterpreted for 2016, it means dominating the centre ground left uncontested by Labour, who many believe is further from power than at any time in more than 30 years.

Voters have far more confidence in May than Corbyn to prop up the public health service, reduce mass immigration and strike post-Brexit trade relationships, according to a Britain Thinks opinion poll on September 22.

And a YouGov poll for The Times newspaper on Friday put the Conservatives on 39 percent, ahead of Labour on 30 percent. Opinion polls since July have regularly given the Conservatives a double-digit lead.

However, she has ruled out capitalising on their advantage by calling a general election before one is due in 2020.

- Handling hardcore Brexiteers -

But not everything is going swimmingly for May, according to Matthew Goodwin, a professor of political science at Kent University.

With only a slender majority in the House of Commons, "potentially, it could be very difficult for Theresa May to pass through controversial legislation in the future linked to Brexit," he told AFP.

May, who gave qualified backing for Britain to stay in the EU in the referendum, said Sunday that Britain would start the EU exit process between the New Year and the end of March.

She will need to maintain unity in the cabinet she has chosen between those wanting a so-called "soft Brexit" and those backing full divorce from Brussels, including withdrawing from the single market.

"That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised," George Freeman, chairman of the Conservative policy board, told the left-wing New Statesman magazine.

"It also creates a question for the Conservative Party: will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?"

Whatever the wishes of the hardcore Brexiteers, whether in cabinet or on the Conservative backbenches, May and her government are about to enter uncharted territory.