BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom: Britain’s governing Conservative Party meets for its annual conference from Sunday facing questions over how and when it will take the country out of the European Union following the Brexit vote.
Beginning a new era with Prime Minister Theresa May in charge, many in the center-right party are still jubilant after Britain voted to become the first country ever to leave the EU in June’s referendum.
But there is trouble ahead, with the government under increasing pressure to define what shape Brexit will take and when May will trigger two years of departure negotiations with Brussels.
European powers keen to dampen euroscepticism in their own backyards have taken an increasingly hard line, warning that Britain cannot expect special treatment on trade and immigration.
Access to the single market means allowing free movement of people, they say. But May has said she wants to curb the yearly influx of hundreds of thousands of people from other parts of the EU.
Ending the free movement of people from the EU to Britain is a key demand from many of the 58 percent of Conservative voters who backed leaving the union.
Some key figures in May’s own party have said they want to sever all ties with the EU by leaving the single market and imposing work visa rules.
They argue that the European Union would only be harming itself if it began imposing tariffs on British goods and services because the EU exports more to Britain than Britain does to the rest of the bloc.
However, May herself campaigned to stay in the EU while other key ministers such as finance minister Philip Hammond reportedly want a softer landing, with carve-outs for Europe’s most important financial center, the City of London.
“There is so little known about Brexit,” said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics.
“It begs the question of whether the government does have a view about exactly what it’s going to do with the country or not.”
May started addressing the concerns by announcing Sunday a Great Repeal Bill, ending the authority of EU law once Britain leaves the union.
It will overturn laws that make EU regulations supreme, enshrine all EU rules in domestic law and confirm the British parliament can amend them as it wants.
“This marks the first stage in the UK becoming a sovereign and independent country once again,” May told The Sunday Times newspaper.
“It will return power and authority to the elected institutions of our country. It means that the authority of EU law in Britain will end.”
On the face of it, May — whose keynote closing speech comes on Wednesday — goes to the convention in Birmingham, central England, in a strong position.
The Conservatives are well ahead of the deeply divided main opposition Labour Party under veteran leftist Jeremy Corbyn in opinion polls.
May is seen as the best prime minister by 67 percent of people, compared to just 25 percent for Corbyn, according to research published this month by Lord Michael Ashcroft, a former Conservative deputy chairman turned pollster.
But she has ruled out holding a general election before one is due in 2020, telling The Sunday Times it would “introduce a note of instability”.
And with parliament set to get back to work on October 10, there is a sense that her honeymoon period is over and serious questions are looming unanswered on the horizon.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was slapped down by Downing Street in September after saying Article 50 exit negotiations would be triggered early next year — a rare snippet after weeks of May saying only that “Brexit means Brexit”.
When it is triggered, it is likely to be a painful process. This could worsen the decades-old arguments between eurosceptic and more pro-EU Conservatives, already inflamed by the referendum.
“The Brexit negotiations will take much longer and be far more complicated than many British politicians realize,” said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform.
Sunday is set to be the main day for debate on the EU, with addresses from May as well as Johnson and Brexit minister David Davis.
They will be expected “to put some kind of meat on the bones,” said Victoria Honeyman, politics lecturer at Leeds University.