World

May takes her case for Brexit to the people

LONDON — With British lawmakers having given her Brexit plan a scathing review, Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday began a last-ditch appeal to a constituency she hoped might save it: voters so fed up with negotiations that they would back whatever is on the table.

Not that May wants to give them an actual vote on the matter, a prospect that could kill her plans to extract Britain from the European Union altogether.

But the prime minister, estranged from much of her own party and dealing with scorn even from supposed allies in business, is trying to apply pressure to reluctant lawmakers by building public approval for the deal.

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“In Parliament, there’s a lot of focus on who’s going to vote for the deal or not,” May told a caller during a BBC Radio 5 Live appearance Friday. “And I think outside, people are thinking, ‘Actually, let’s make sure we can get this through.’ ”

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Since weathering a bumbling leadership challenge from proponents of a clean split from Europe within her Conservative Party, May has seen her popularity rebound. More people backed her staying on as prime minister than standing down in a YouGov poll this week, a reversal of the results from a week earlier.

But the draft deal itself remains deeply unpopular, with only 23 percent of people saying in a YouGov poll this week that they supported it, and only 3 percent saying they did so strongly.

May ducked the thorniest questions put to her by radio callers Friday, in a preview of what looked to be a week of public campaigning for the deal after European leaders vote on it in Brussels on Sunday.

She refused to discuss a backup plan if lawmakers in Parliament were to reject the draft deal in a vote expected by mid-December. She refused to say whether she would resign in that case. And she groped for a response to one of the most provocative questions conservative lawmakers have been wrestling with in recent days: Would the country be better off under May’s plan or if it never left the union at all?

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“What will make us better off is not so much about whether we’re in the European Union or not,” she finally said. “It’s about what we can do for our economy; it’s about what we can do for our prosperity.”

The feeling that May’s deal was worse than remaining in the bloc was reported to be spreading among Conservative lawmakers. On Friday morning, Dominic Raab, who resigned as the prime minister’s Brexit secretary over his opposition to the deal, said after some hemming and hawing that the terms of May’s agreement “would be even worse” than the terms of EU membership.

“We’d effectively be bound by the same rules,” he said, “but without the control or voice over them.”

Negotiators in Brussels and London agreed Thursday to a 26-page draft document outlining Britain’s future ties to the European Union after it leaves in March. The prime minister hoped the text might shore up support among hard-line Brexiteers, particularly by promising that technology could one day solve the problem of avoiding a border on the island of Ireland.

Negotiators were still working Friday to settle lingering questions about how British and European leaders would decide on the status of Gibraltar — a British overseas territory claimed by Spain — once Britain leaves the union.

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Spain wants a say in any future trading arrangements concerning the territory, but May maintained Friday that it would be covered by whatever deal British negotiators work out for the United Kingdom.