LONDON, March 17 — British Prime Minister Theresa May took aim at Russia at a major speech to her Conservative Party on Saturday, cutting a stronger figure as internal Brexit divisions took a back seat.
Amid escalating tensions with Moscow over the poisoning of a former double agent on British soil, May warned that she would “never tolerate a threat to the life of British citizens and others on British soil from the Russian government,” to strong applause from party members.
May’s last major party conference appearance ended in disaster as a cough, a prankster and a collapsing backdrop undermined her speech — intended to restore her authority following last year’s disastrous snap general election in which the Conservatives lost their parliamentary majority.
A pre-Christmas breakthrough with the European Union in Brexit negotiations gave her a boost, but she was again under pressure after pro-EU rebels within her centre-right party delivered her a stinging parliamentary defeat.
However, she arrived at the Conservatives’ spring forum in London with renewed authority.
Her decision to expel 23 Russian diplomats and suspend high-level contacts received cross-party and media support, but more importantly rallied the Conservatives, heralding a ceasefire in the bitter internal row over Brexit.
May began her speech, which took place shortly after Russia announced tit-for-tat expulsions of British diplomats, by accusing Moscow of being in “flagrant breach of international law and the Chemical Weapons Convention.”
She also said that “Russian aggression is the very antithesis of the liberal and democratic values that define the United Kingdom.”
But behind the bravado, members on both sides of the Brexit debate are still scrutinising May’s every word for clues on her position, and she largely avoided the issue on Saturday, exploiting the rare spirit of unity to focus on her domestic agenda.
May, 61, insisted that the Conservative Party “cares deeply” about public services, and spoke about the impact that the National Health Service had had on treating her diabetes.
She also told the party, in office since 2010, that it “must mount a determined effort” to “win and keep” the public’s trust in its management of government services.
“Some people question our motives. They wonder whether we care enough about our NHS (National Health Service) and schools,” she said.
“Whether we truly respect the people who work in them. And understand that people rely on them.
“I know what our answer would be. Everyone in this party cares deeply about our public services. We use them. Many of us rely on them.”
A YouGov poll of 1,986 adults for The Times newspaper out Friday put the Conservatives on 42 percent support and the Labour main opposition on 39 per cent.
Some 53 per cent said May had responded well to the Salisbury attack, while 23 percent thought she had responded badly.
Sixty percent supported, and 14 per cent opposed, the measures May has taken, such as expelling the Russian diplomats.
For Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, 18 per cent thought he had responded well and 39 per cent said he had responded badly. — AFP