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May faces Tory fire over Brexit as Johnson lays down challenge

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Prime Minister Theresa May faces the battle of her political life to retain control of the governing Conservative Party, after a succession of senior Tory politicians gave at best lukewarm endorsements of her leadership - and others sounded ready for mutiny.

[LONDON] Prime Minister Theresa May faces the battle of her political life to retain control of the governing Conservative Party, after a succession of senior Tory politicians gave at best lukewarm endorsements of her leadership - and others sounded ready for mutiny.

Mrs May arrived at her party's annual conference in Birmingham needing to reassert her authority and to convince Conservatives to back her blueprint for Britain's departure from the European Union in March.

Instead, she was immediately put on the defensive by her arch rival, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who called her Brexit plan "deranged". Then her former Brexit Secretary David Davis piled on, blaming Mrs May directly for the lack of success in talks with the EU.

The next few days will be critical, and her political opponents have an advantage that she doesn't address delegates herself until Wednesday. When she does, she'll need more than her Sunday line to the BBC urging the party to "come together and get the best deal for Britain".

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Below are the highlights of day one at the conference:

BREXIT PLAN UNDER FIRE

Mrs May's 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 euroskeptic Tories led by Mr Johnson who want a quick, clean split from the bloc.

Mr Johnson has been criticising Mrs May's so-called Chequers plan for months, but he turned it personal in an interview with the Sunday Times. Her idea to require Britain and the EU to collect each other's tariffs was "entirely preposterous", he said.

"Unlike the prime minister I fought for this, I believe in it," Mr 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."

BROADENING ATTACK

It wasn't just Mrs May coming under fire. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, former Brexit Minister Steve Baker said Mrs May's blueprint - the reason why he quit the government - is the product of "excessive political influence" by the country's biggest business lobby, the Confederation of British Industry.

"The CBI is a grave menace to the political stability and economic prospects of the UK,'' Mr Baker wrote. "The voice of business should be heard. Companies are entitled to seek minimal interruption to commerce and, as the party of free enterprise, Conservatives should listen. But the CBI is not that voice."

A PERIOD OF SILENCE

But it wasn't all bleak for the premier. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, pointed out Mr Johnson had been a senior member of Cabinet when Mrs May's Brexit plan was forged, and said Tory attacks on the prime minister should stop. "In terms of a period of silence, I would be very welcoming of one," she told the BBC.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds was also supportive of Mrs May's plan. "It's a good package," he told Bloomberg. "Of course you can pick holes. You can pick holes in any package. But unless you've got something better to put forward as an alternative, that is what there is."

Later, the premier received rapturous applause when she made an unexpected appearance at a reception hosted by the government of Gibraltar. Chief Minister Fabian Picardo - a socialist - said she had been Gibraltar's "champion'' in the Brexit talks and called her "our star striker in this final countdown.''

That prompted a quick comeback from Mrs May: "It was going fine until that point." She then addressed the room, saying Britain and Gibraltar have a "brighter future'' with Brexit. On her way out, she posed for selfies and looked relaxed chatting with the party faithful.

MORE SUPPORT

Business Secretary Greg Clark rejected both a no-deal Brexit and the kind of Canada-style free-trade deal being pushed by Mr Johnson, and said he's confident the party will ultimately back an agreement modeled on Mrs May's blueprint.

"No deal is something that wouldn't be in the interests of either side, and Canada wouldn't achieve our objectives: we've got to be tenacious about this,'' Mr Clark told Bloomberg TV Sunday.

"It was totally predictable that this would be the time when breakthroughs would be made and agreements would be forged, and that is what I think will happen in the weeks ahead."

Even so, Mr Clark said businesses "need to prepare for all eventualities." He also dismissed the notion of Tories backing a potential leadership bid by Mr Johnson: "I don't see any appetite for that kind of division. Quite the reverse."

LEADERSHIP KLAXON

A potential dark horse in a future leadership race, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt got the tone of his keynote speech just right on Sunday.

There was a joke at his predecessor Mr Johnson's expense. But it was a harmless one: "I walked up the Grand Staircase in the Foreign Office and looked at the pictures of my distinguished predecessors gazing down from the wall. One of the recent ones seemed to have forgotten to comb his blond hair."

He also referenced past leaders Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill, who always go down well among rank-and-file Tories.

But the most important takeaway was on Brexit, which despite being a relatively recent convert to the cause, Mr Hunt navigated without sounding treasonous. Taking a crack at the French for being mean captured the current Tory zeitgeist, as did his comparison of the EU with the Soviet Union that "stopped people leaving."

"Never mistake British politeness for British weakness... Because if you put a country like Britain in a corner, we don't crumble. We fight." It was tub-thumping stuff.

TRUE BELIEVERS

The hot ticket was for the Brexit cheerleaders' event. A line snaked around the block to attend "The BrexitCentral Conference Rally" where the rumour among eager attendants was that Mr Johnson might attend. The headline acts were Jacob Rees-Mogg, the informal leader of the hardliners, while former Development Secretary Priti Patel was also there.

Totem bags were handed round bearing the slogan "Let's Get Brexit in the Bag", along with pamphlets titled "Project Cheer 3, even more reasons to be cheerful about Brexit". Mr Rees-Mogg was among friends; someone even wolf-whistled.

Perhaps the most notable line came from Tory lawmaker Conor Burns, former parliamentary private secretary to Mr Johnson, who said Brexiteers don't want to change Mrs May - they just want her to abandon her plan. It's been their line for weeks now; the next few days could go a long way to deciding what happens if she refuses.

IT'S NOT ALL BREXIT

The Labour Party used their own conference last week in Liverpool to put pressure on the Tories with a series of policies aimed at overhauling the economy. They included a major house-building programme, appealing to voters unable to afford homes - a problem that is especially acute in London and southeast England.

The government doesn't want to cede ground to Labour on such a key issue, and said on Sunday it will raise the tax on foreign buyers of homes in the UK, with the money raised to be used to help the homeless. It comes weeks after Mrs May announced 2 billion pounds (S$3.56 billion) of funding to encourage non-profit housing groups to build cheaper homes over the next decade.

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