David Lidington speaks at the the British Chamber of Commerce in London, Britain, March 28 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
David Lidington speaks at the the British Chamber of Commerce in London, Britain, March 28 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

London — Britain’s governing Conservative Party cannot let itself be defined solely by Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May’s de facto deputy said on Sunday, as polling showed failure to leave the EU on schedule has badly damaged its support.

May’s authority has been shattered by her three-time failure to get an exit deal approved by parliament and a pledge to quit once Brexit is delivered, driving speculation about her successor and a possible national election.

The once-prized stability of British politics has disappeared, threatening to break apart both the Conservatives and their main opponents Labour, and leaving the world’s fifth-largest economy facing an uncertain future.

Without any consensus in parliament, reflective of a deeply divided population, all outcomes remain possible in the coming weeks and months: leaving the EU with a deal, a disorderly exit without a deal, or another vote on whether to leave at all.

“We mustn’t define ourselves as the Brexit party,” said David Lidington, cabinet office minister and effectively May’s second-in-command.

“We’ve got to deliver the outcome of the referendum … but, the Conservative Party has got to remain a broad church, a national party, and it’s got to be talking about things that matter to people in their everyday lives: housing, health service, living standards.”

May, 62, took power in the aftermath of Britain’s surprise 2016 vote to leave the EU and has seen her government paralysed by divisions over Brexit and unable to enact an ambitious reform agenda to tackle social injustice.

An Opinium poll published in the Observer newspaper showed the Conservatives at 29%, down six points from March 28 and seven points behind Labour.

An analysis of polls since the original intended March 29 exit day, published in the Sunday Telegraph, showed the Conservatives would lose 59 parliamentary seats if an election were held.

“Much of this drop reflects disappointment among Leave voters — around a half of whom would prefer ‘no deal’ — at the government's failure to deliver Brexit,” polling expert John Curtice wrote in the Sunday Telegraph

The analysis showed Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party would win the most seats but still fall short of an outright majority in the 650-seat parliament, with Scottish nationalists and the small centrist Liberal Democrats party also picking up seats.

Talks with Labour

Lidington told the BBC compromise talks with Labour would continue, with both sides seeking agreement over a plan for Brexit that could win parliament’s approval.

He warned the talks could not be allowed to drag on for months, but showed little indication the government may drop its requirement that future EU ties cannot involve a customs union.

With parliament on an 11-day break until April 23, Britons are wondering what happens next.

Steve Murrells, CEO of retailer Co-op group, told the BBC the government had “kicked the can down the road” on Brexit, but that his firm would continue to plan for the worst-case scenario of leaving without a deal.

Despite being handed an extension of EU membership until October 31, May is hoping to pass a withdrawal agreement and lead Britain out of the bloc before May 23 to avoid taking part in elections for the European parliament.

Eurosceptic Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative Party leader, said May should be ready to quit in June. He described the delay to Brexit as “political death” and urged May to avoid taking part in the European elections.

“What the prime minister has to do now is aim everything towards departure before the euros [European elections], which would then allow her to step away having done what she said she would do — get the UK out of the European Union one way or the other,” he told Sky News.