Mrs. May’s problems over a withdrawal are coming to a head over her promise to leave Europe’s customs union, which guarantees tariff-free trade with Continental Europe.
This issue has come to symbolize a deep division: Pro-Europeans want to stick close to the bloc, Britain’s biggest trade partner, in order to protect the economy, while hard-line Brexit supporters want to break free and to negotiate other trade deals with non-European nations.
Some supporters of Brexit have hinted they would challenge her leadership if Mrs. May tried to soften the economic consequences of a withdrawal by sticking close to the bloc’s economic rules and forming a close customs arrangement. There is speculation that some Brexit cabinet cheerleaders — Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the international trade secretary, Liam Fox — might quit.
But if she pleases the hard-line Brexit faction, Mrs. May will struggle to get approval for her plan from Parliament.
“It is as remarkable as it is depressing that, with less than a year to go until Britain formally leaves, the Brexit inner cabinet is still debating what kind of customs arrangements the U.K. should be seeking,” wrote James Forsyth, political editor of the right-wing, Brexit-supporting magazine Spectator.
Indirectly, at least, Brexit appeared to have played a role in shaping the local election results. Mrs. May’s party generally polled well in parts of England that voted to leave the European Union, while Labour performed well in areas that wanted to remain, as did the smaller, more pro-European, Liberal Democrats, who made gains.