Tory divisions could lead to UK staying in EU, Theresa May warns party

British prime minister criticises Conservative Brexiteers for rejecting compromise

Theresa May has called on Conservatives to unite behind her Brexit plan, warning that divisions within the party could lead to Britain remaining in the European Union. In her closing speech at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, the prime minister criticised hardline Brexiteers who rejected compromise.

“The people we serve are not interested in debates about the theory of Brexit – their livelihoods depend on making a success of it in practice. A Brexit that might make Britain stronger 50 years from now is no good to you if it makes your life harder today,” she said.

Repeating her call for the EU to treat Britain with respect in the negotiations, she said she could not accept what she characterised as the two unacceptable options currently offered by the EU.

"Either a deal that keeps us in the EU in all but name, keeps free movement, keeps vast annual payments and stops us signing trade deals with other countries. Or a deal that carves off Northern Ireland, a part of this country, effectively leaving it in the EU's custom's union," she said.


Accusing Labour of opportunism in opposing her approach to Brexit, Ms May denounced the campaign for a second referendum as an attempt by politicians to overturn the people's decision. But she warned her own backbenchers that, if they failed to back her, they risked handing control of Brexit to those who oppose it.

“Think for a moment what it would do to faith in our democracy if – having asked the people of this country to take this decision – politicians tried to overturn it. Those of us who do respect the result – whichever side of the question we stood on two years ago – need to come together now. If we don’t – if we all go off in different directions in pursuit of our own visions of the perfect Brexit we risk ending up with no Brexit at all,” she said.

‘End of austerity’

The prime minister began her speech by making fun of her awkward dancing on a recent visit to Africa by sashaying onstage to the sound of Abba's Dancing Queen before launching into a sustained attack on Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party.

She said some Labour backbenchers were heirs to Hugh Gaitskell, Barbara Castle, Dennis Healy and John Smith but accused the front bench of rejecting the common values that once bridged Britain's political divide.

"What has it come to when Jewish families today seriously discuss where they should go if Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister? When a leading Labour MP says his party is 'institutionally racist'?

“When the leader of the Labour Party is happy to appear on Iranian state TV, but attacks our free media here in Britain? That is what Jeremy Corbyn has done to the Labour Party. It is our duty, in this Conservative Party, to make sure he can never do it to our country,” she said.

Ten years after the financial crash, Ms May announced the end of austerity, promising more spending on public services next year. In an attempt to ease the housing crisis, she said the government would lift the cap on borrowing by local councils for house building.

Labour chairman Ian Lavery dismissed the prime minister's speech, accusing her party of lacking ideas to deal with the problems British citizens are facing.

“Austerity is not an economic necessity. It is a political choice made by the Conservatives to hack away at our public services and communities, leaving workers worse off while gifting huge tax cuts to big business. And as long as Britain has a Conservative prime minister, we’ll never see an end to austerity,” he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times