May serves up Brexit menu with added humble pie


London (AFP)

A month before Britain's general election, Theresa May was in combative mood as she warned that a hung parliament would yield a bad Brexit and decried alleged threats from Brussels.

Today, the hardline rhetoric is gone as Britain's prime minister pledges to listen and reach out following her disastrous electoral showing on June 8, when the Conservatives' parliamentary majority evaporated.

The serving of humble pie bows to the new political landscape, which has not got any easier for May from her stilted response to a shocking fire in a London tower block.

But it does risk complicating the Brexit negotiation as Europe wonders whether its British interlocutors have the power to deliver on any deal.

And compounding the drift in London is an apparent rift as May's finance minister, Philip Hammond, argues for a phased withdrawal that puts jobs and living standards first, rather than the clean break that militant Brexiteers want.

Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King's College London, said the change in tone by May and the rejuvenation of Hammond as a political force was striking.

"Mr Hammond didn't even pretend to agree with Theresa May about immigration policy," he noted.

May, arguing that last year's Brexit referendum was a vote against uncontrolled migration from the rest of the European Union, has pledged to drive net immigration down to the "tens of thousands" per year.

But with business groups warning of lasting harm if the economy is deprived of foreign labour, Hammond on Tuesday said that "while we seek to manage migration, we do not seek to shut it down".

May's shift in tone became explicit on Wednesday in the Queen's Speech marking the formal opening of the new parliament, which will be dominated by the marathon task of turning Brexit into law before the deadline of March 2019.

Vulnerable to mutineers in her own party and to a newly empowered opposition, while struggling to negotiate a parliamentary partnership with a hardline party from Northern Ireland, May introduced the speech by stressing she would respond "with humility and resolve" to the electorate's message.

Reading out May's programme for the new parliament, the queen said her ministers were committed "to build the widest possible consensus on the country's future outside the European Union".

- Why compromise? -

It is all a far cry from May 3, when May accused Brussels of deliberately threatening Britain over the Brexit talks in order to affect the outcome of the coming election.

In remarks that have come back to haunt her, she also warned voters: "Britain simply will not get the right Brexit deal if we have the drift and division of a hung parliament."

And she said that "no deal is better for Britain than a bad deal", insisting that her government stood ready to walk away from the EU talks.

That formulation was a leitmotif of May's election campaign.

But it has now been undermined by Hammond's calls for an interim deal governing cross-Channel trade that stops the British economy from falling off a cliff's edge when Brexit finally takes effect.

The Confederation of British Industry said May's "welcome change in tone" in the Queen's Speech "needs to be backed by clarity and action now", as the country extricates itself from its biggest trading market.

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn echoed Hammond in calling for a Brexit deal that prioritises jobs and the economy, and said: "No deal is not better than a bad deal. It's a bad deal."

Yet at the formal start of the EU talks on Monday in Brussels, May's Brexit minister David Davis emphasised the need for Britain to quit the EU's common market and customs union in order to take back control of its own affairs.

So the Europeans could be forgiven for wondering what exactly is the message from London, especially given British press speculation that Conservative heavyweights stand ready to dethrone May in a leadership challenge.

Like the financial markets, European officials say the EU would welcome more certainty from Britain as it looks to move on from Brexit and focus on long-term challenges such as defence and the economy.

The premier is due to attend an EU summit on Thursday and will reportedly offer a post-Brexit deal guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals living in Britain.

Professor Portes said the other EU leaders will welcome the change in tone but are unlikely to be more conciliatory in turn.

"Why compromise with May when she's so weak?" he said.