British Prime Minister Theresa May received the backing of the last remaining pro-Brexit heavyweights in her cabinet on Friday as she battled to salvage her EU divorce deal and her job.
After a tumultuous Thursday in which four ministers resigned, MPs slammed her draft agreement and members of her own party plotted to oust her, May received key support from the top Brexiteers left in her government.
All eyes were on Environment Secretary Michael Gove — a Vote Leave figurehead in Britain’s 2016 EU membership referendum — who had stayed ominously silent as his colleagues quit around him.
Asked Friday if he had confidence in May, he said: “I absolutely do. It’s absolutely vital that we focus on getting the right deal in the future.”
Many media outlets reported that Gove had earlier rejected an offer to replace Dominic Raab, whose decision Thursday to quit as Brexit minister over the EU deal sparked fears the government could collapse.
Eurosceptics in May’s Conservative party are also plotting to unseat her by tabling letters of no confidence in her leadership.
But International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, another leading Brexit supporter, backed her and her deal.
“A deal is better than no deal — businesses do require certainty,” he said. “What we need now is stability.”
‘Best deal for Britain’
Seeking to win over the public, May made a rare outing on a radio phone-in.
“I truly believe this is the best deal for Britain,” May said of the proposed EU withdrawal agreement, adding that she was “very sorry” that ministers including Raab had quit.
May told LBC radio she would appoint a new Brexit chief “over the next day or so”.
One caller, a local Conservative councillor, urged May to “do the right thing in the national interest and stand down”.
She also faced comparisons with prime minister Neville Chamberlain and his 1938 appeasement of Nazi Germany’s dictator Adolf Hitler.
“We are not going to be locked in forever to something that we don’t want,” May insisted.
Brexiteer MPs fear the deal would keep Britain shackled to Brussels long after Brexit on March 29, 2019.
EU supporters say it would leave the UK on worse terms than it has inside the bloc and are calling for a second Brexit referendum to break the logjam.
No confidence moves
Despite the support from Gove and Fox, May could yet face a vote of no confidence from her own MPs.
At least 48 Conservative MPs are required to submit letters of no confidence in the party leader to trigger a vote and 21 have publicly confirmed they had done so.
If May wins such a vote, she cannot be challenged for 12 months.
May’s de facto deputy David Lidington said she would win a no confidence vote “handsomely” and urged colleagues to withdraw their letters.
“I’ve seen no plausible alternative plan from any of those criticising her or wanting to challenge her position,” he told Bauer Radio Scotland.
May’s Conservatives have no majority in parliament’s lower House of Commons, but govern through an agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
However, DUP lawmakers were among MPs from all sides who lined up in the chamber on Thursday to warn they could not support her Brexit deal.
The pound slumped 1.7 percent against the dollar on Thursday — the biggest drop for more than two years, sparked by fears the turmoil at Westminster could result in Britain leaving the EU with no deal.
But it rebounded on Friday, and around 1300 GMT, sterling was up 0.6 percent at $1.2843, while one euro was worth 88.31 pence.
The 585-page draft deal aims to ensure a smooth divorce from the EU after more than four decades of membership and outlines a transition period for both sides.
Key provisions seek to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, protect citizens’ rights and settle Britain’s outstanding payments to the bloc.
EU member states have until Tuesday to examine the deal and to agree the wording of a parallel political statement setting out goals for the bloc’s future relations with London.
A special EU summit to seal the hard-fought Brexit agreement will be held on November 25.
French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said Brexit advocates who peddled an “absurd political promise” must now choose to either accept the deal or face “economic disaster”.