LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Theresa May’s softer plan for government still has a hard Brexit at its core. The quest for a parliamentary majority has forced the British prime minister to curb her ambitions for far-reaching domestic reforms. Her agenda, read out by Queen Elizabeth at the opening of parliament on Wednesday, will now focus on paving the way for leaving the European Union. Yet shaky support means even this blueprint could stay stuck on the drawing board.
Less than a fortnight after the electoral drubbing that erased her slim majority, May struck a conciliatory tone. The two-year programme for government carried only the faintest trace of the bold manifesto presented a month earlier. Promises to reform pensions, schools and social care were dumped or diluted. Plans to rein in executive pay and give workers a greater role in corporate governance were also notable by their absence.
The stripped-down plan reflects political reality. May’s Conservative party is hoping to secure the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to secure a parliamentary majority for its agenda. Even if the talks succeed, the government will be vulnerable to rebellion from within its own ranks.
Timing is the other consideration. Almost three months of the two-year Brexit process have already ticked by. In the time that remains, the government needs to pass a raft of legislation to prepare for leaving the EU. This includes transcribing existing European laws into British statute, as well as crafting policies on issues such as trade, immigration and agriculture. Of the 27 pieces of legislation outlined on Wednesday, almost a third relate to Brexit.
Yet parliamentary backing for this agenda is far from assured. Despite her consensual noises, May has not backed away from the vision of Brexit she set out earlier this year: leaving the EU single market and customs union, and sharply limiting immigration. The election result has cast doubt on popular support for that project. It has emboldened parliamentarians who favour a softer approach. Even if Theresa May can cobble together a loose coalition and fend off challenges to her leadership, her stripped-down agenda remains a work in progress.
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