UK's May Fights for Future After Brexit

MANCHESTER, England (AP) -- Britain's governing Conservatives are holding their first conference since being re-elected in June, but they're not in a celebratory mood.

The party's grip on power is tenuous, its support base is aging, and its government is deeply divided over Brexit. For Prime Minister Theresa May, the annual gathering is a make-or-break chance to bring her fractious party into line and stop rivals trying to grab her crown.

"I don't think it's a case of turning things around," said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. "I think it's just a case of stopping the rot."

May is due to address party members Wednesday at the conference in Manchester. But delegates will first hear from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Tuesday. Johnson has been accused of undermining the prime minister — and advancing his leadership ambitions — by laying out his roadmap for Britain's exit from the European Union.

With divorce negotiations with the bloc proceeding at a snail's pace, Johnson has positioned himself as a champion of a clean-break "hard Brexit." He wants the U.K. to adopt a low-tax, low-regulation economy outside the EU's single market, says Britain must not pay to get tariff-free trade with the EU and insists that any post-Brexit transition period should not last "a second more" than two years.

Johnson's stance — tougher than May's stated position — has added to uncertainty for British businesses, who want to know whether they will keep easy access to the EU market and its population of nearly half a billion after Brexit.

The British Chambers of Commerce warned that businesspeople "are growing impatient with division and disorganization at the heart of the party of government" and want "competence and coherence" instead.

German politician Manfred Weber, head of the biggest party group in the European Parliament, implored May on Tuesday to fire Johnson, "because we need a clear answer who is responsible for the British position."

U.K. finance minister Philip Hammond, who backs a compromise "soft Brexit" to cushion the economic shock of leaving, acknowledged that government divisions are hurting the economy.

"The process of negotiating our exit from the EU has created uncertainty, so investment has slowed as businesses wait for clarity," he said in a speech on Monday. "So before we can reap the benefits of our strong economic fundamentals and the investment we are making in the future, we must remove this uncertainty."

Hammond also issued a warning to Johnson, telling broadcaster ITV: "Nobody is unsackable."

But May's power to silence Johnson is limited. Earlier this year she called a snap election in hopes of boosting the Conservative majority in Parliament and strengthening her hand in Brexit negotiations. But after a lackluster campaign that saw her dubbed the "Maybot," voters reduced the Conservatives to a minority administration.

May insisted Tuesday she was firmly in charge, saying she did not want a Cabinet of "yes men." She has vowed to lead her party into the next election, due in 2022.

But many Conservatives see her as a lame duck, and a leadership challenge could come much sooner.

Johnson is not May's only rival. Some pro-Brexit Tories favor lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose combination of social conservatism and tweed-suited upper-class assurance strikes his fans as a badge of political authenticity.

Another rising star is charismatic Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who told delegates that the party "needs to get over its current nervous breakdown and man up a bit."

To add to May's woes, she and senior ministers feel they must use their conference speeches to defend capitalism against a resurgent British left.

The Labour Party under veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn surprised many in June's election by gaining votes — especially among the young — with an old-school tax-and-spend platform of nationalizing key industries, increasing public-sector pay and boosting welfare benefits.

In response, the Conservatives have announced policies aimed at younger voters, including a freeze on university fees and a 10 billion-pound ($13.3 billion) boost to a housing help-to-buy program.

Many doubt these modest measures will do much to woo young people back from Labour. Even if they do, May's days as leader are likely numbered.

"She seems to be under attack from all sides," Bale said. "She's got Boris Johnson to worry about, but she's also got those ministers who are sick of Boris Johnson and sick of her not imposing her authority on him. And she's also got a bunch of Conservative Party members who are feeling very sore about the way the election was conducted and want some answers and want an apology.

"All she can do is earn their tolerance for another year or two, until such time as they decide that it's time for her to go."

(KA)