UK Prime Minister Theresa May found herself struggling to contain a row over a massive data breach and to fend off a brazen challenge over Brexit from her archrival, Boris Johnson. Photo: AP

INTERNATIONAL – Theresa May is battling to assert her authority as UK prime minister after a disastrous start to her party’s annual conference threatened to explode into a full-blown leadership crisis. 

Before the event had even begun, May found herself struggling to contain a row over a massive data breach and to fend off a brazen challenge over Brexit from her archrival, Boris Johnson. The former UK foreign secretary called her plan “deranged.”

“My message to my party is let’s come together and get the best deal for Britain,” May said in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. She insisted her proposed blueprint for leaving the EU is not dead and appealed to her critics to put the needs of the country first.

“What drives me, what drives the government is the national interest – that’s why I’m saying to everybody in politics today, let’s focus on the national interest.”

May arrived in Birmingham for her third Conservative Party conference since becoming prime minister in the aftermath of the UK’s 2016 EU referendum, with her leadership and her Brexit strategy in peril. Her proposal to keep close to the EU’s single market in goods – which would establish a new free trade area with the UK – has been bluntly rejected by European leaders, and is under attack from her own side. 

Euro-sceptic Tories led by Johnson want a quick, clean split with the bloc and worry that May is binding Britain far too closely to EU tariffs and trade regulations, an outcome they say amounts to a betrayal of the referendum vote.

Yesterday, Johnson stepped up his attack on May’s Brexit proposal, known as the Chequers plan, and turned it personal. Her plan to require Britain and the EU to collect each other’s tariffs was “entirely preposterous,” he said.

Former Brexit Secretary David Davis added to the pressure on May to ditch her Chequers plan, pinning the blame on her for the lack of success in talks with the EU. 

Speaking to Sky News, he said he spent much of his time in office telling May she was making major mistakes in her negotiating strategy. “I told her at each stage where I thought we were going the wrong way,” Davis said.

Some Tories are openly demanding that May quits as prime minister and want her replaced with a leader who will deliver a decisive break with the EU.

“Unlike the prime minister I fought for this, I believe in it,” Johnson said. “I think it's the right thing for our country and I think that what is happening now is, alas, not what people were promised in 2016. 

– BLOOMBERG