Theresa May says UK's 'best days lie ahead' after Brexit — she just has to convince her critics

Key Points
  • The British prime minister gave a speech Wednesday designed to boost confidence in the U.K.'s future once it leaves the European Union — and to brush off her biggest critic and rival, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
  • May said Britain's post-Brexit future is "full of promise" and that the country "has everything we need to succeed."
UK prime minister: There is no limit to what we can achieve

British Prime Minister Theresa May gave a speech Wednesday designed to boost confidence over the country's future once it leaves the European Union (EU) – and to brush off her biggest critic and rival, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

May said Britain's post-Brexit future is "full of promise" and that the country "has everything we need to succeed" when she addressed party delegates on the last day of the Conservative Party's annual conference in Birmingham, England.

Her speech, entitled "Our Future Is In Our Hands," showed that May was seeking to unite warring factions within the party — namely, those that favor a "hard" Brexit, those that never wanted to leave the economic and political bloc, and those that are reconciled to leaving the EU but want to remain closely aligned to the continent.

May alluded to differences in her party. "Leadership is doing what you believe is right and having the courage and determination to see it through and that's the approach I've taken on Brexit. We've had disagreements in this party about Britain's membership of the EU for a long time, so it's no surprise we've had a range of different views expressed this week," she said.

May told delegates that Britain's "best days lie ahead of us" and that countries across the world stand ready to trade with the U.K. once it leaves the EU on March 29.

"I passionately believe that our best days lie ahead of us and that our future is full of promise," she said, when she addressed delegates around midday U.K. time (7 a.m. ET). "Don't let anyone tell you we don't have what it takes — we have everything we need to succeed."

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (L) sits with Britain's Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
LEON NEAL | AFP | Getty Images

Despite the attempt to boost morale within the party, this year's conference has been notable for the stark divide that has been apparent within the Conservatives. The June 2016 referendum on leaving the EU exposed deep ideological divisions within the party (and the country as a whole) and May has struggled to unite party members, and her own cabinet, around her Brexit proposals.

Divisions over May's "Chequers plan," which has also been rejected by the EU as unworkable and undermining of the bloc's principles, have led to increasing speculation that May could face a leadership challenge and even another general election.

May rebuffed the prospect of a "no-deal" scenario, where Britain leaves the bloc without a deal setting out its future relationship with the EU in place. "No one wants a good deal more than me, but that has never meant getting a deal at any cost," she said.

But such a scenario could be overcome thanks to the British people's "resilience and ingenuity," she added.

She said Britain would not accept either a deal that "keeps Britain in the EU in all but name" or one that "carves off" Northern Ireland, leaving it within the EU's customs union.

The Boris factor

A likely contender to lead that challenge is Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and one of May's biggest critics. Johnson, gave a rousing speech at a fringe event at the party's annual conference in which he once again criticized her Brexit proposals.

Telling party delegates to "chuck Chequers" (after calling her plans "deranged" last week) Johnson said he wanted to "stop a ridiculous seeping away of our self-belief." Johnson's speech was also designed to boost confidence around Britain's post-Brexit future.

Although he was preaching to the converted - with those attending the fringe event likely to be fans of Johnson - his speech was widely applauded by the audience and he received standing ovation.

An advocate of a "hard" Brexit with benefits -- or what he calls a "Super Canada" deal, referring to the free trade deal Canada has with the EU which allows for zero tariff trade – Johnson is seen as the most likely contender for the Tory party leadership.

Theresa May: Duty to stop Labour's Corbyn from getting into power

Addressing such speculation, Johnson said that Chancellor Philip Hammond's prediction that he would never be prime minister was "one of the first treasury forecasts in a long time to have a distinct ring of truth."

He also encouraged the party to support the prime minister, putting out a confusing message of critical allegiance to the PM.

Asked what she thought of Johnson's speech, May told Sky News that Johnson had put in a characteristically good performance. "Look, Boris (Johnson) always puts on a good show, but what matters to people is what we're delivering for them on the things that affect their day-to-day lives," she said on Tuesday.

She defended her Chequers plan once again, saying it is one that "delivers on the vote of the British people," she said, adding that "it means we take back control of our money, our borders and our laws."

May's 'Chequers plan' envisages the country staying closely aligned to Europe in terms of trade and regulations although the deal foresees the U.K. being able to stop the free movement of people from the EU. It also foresees the U.K. being able to strike independent trade deals elsewhere.