With British government, parliament and people divided, a disorderly Brexit looms

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May attends a Serious Youth Violence Summit in Downing Street, London, Britain April 1, 2019. Adrian Dennis/Pool via REUTERS

By Elizabeth Piper, Kylie MacLellan and Gabriela Baczynska

LONDON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union said on Tuesday that Britain could be heading for a potentially disorderly exit in just 10 days time as Prime Minister Theresa May met with ministers to thrash out ways to break the Brexit deadlock.

Nearly three years since the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU in a shock referendum result, May’s exit strategy is up in the air as her government and party are still squabbling over how, when or even if Brexit should happen.

May’s divorce deal has been defeated three times by the lower house of the British parliament, which failed on Monday to find a majority of its own for any alternatives. She is expected to try to put her deal to a fourth vote this week.

The deadlock has already delayed Brexit for at least two weeks beyond the planned departure date to 2200 GMT on April 12.

“Over the last days a no-deal scenario has become more likely, but we can still hope to avoid it,” EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said in Brussels.

May chaired several hours of cabinet meetings in Downing Street in a bid to find a way out of the crisis. It was unclear what, if anything, had been agreed.

European Central Bank policymaker Francois Villeroy de Galhau said markets needed to price in the growing risk of a no-deal.

The cacophony of warnings over a disorderly Brexit ratchet up the pressure on British lawmakers as some try to grab control of parliament to prevent a no-deal.

If May cannot get her deal ratified by parliament then she has a choice between leaving without a deal, trying to trigger an election, or asking the EU for a long delay to negotiate a Brexit agreement with a much closer relationship with the bloc.

UP TO BRITAIN

At least half of her Conservative Party wants to leave the EU without a deal, though some lawmakers and ministers are telling her she must keep the United Kingdom firmly within the bloc’s economic orbit.

The defeat of May’s deal after pledging to quit if it was passed has left the weakest British leader in a generation facing a spiraling crisis.

“I hope that we can still find a solution. The British parliament has said itself that it doesn’t want a disorderly Brexit,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

May will set out next steps ahead of an emergency EU summit on April 10, her spokesman said. May remained opposed to another referendum, he added.

In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron said that if nearly three years after the referendum the United Kingdom was incapable of coming up with a solution, “it would have effectively chosen a no-deal exit on its own”.

Speaking at the Elysee palace alongside Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, Macron said it was for Britain to decide whether the plan involved new elections, a referendum or a customs union.

“It’s up to London to say it, and to say it now,” he said.

With the British electorate, its two major parties and the cabinet are all divided over Brexit, May risks ripping her party apart whichever way she tilts.

BREXIT CHAOS?

Such is the volatility of Brexit news from London that some traders have stepped away from sterling – which has seesawed on Brexit news since the 2016 referendum.

Sterling fell toward $1.30. The EU said a no-deal would disrupt financial markets and have an impact on liquidity.

Auto-maker Ford also sounded the alarm bells, saying it would have to consider what actions to take to protect its business in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

No-deal means there would be no transition so the exit would be abrupt. Britain is a member of the WTO so tariffs and other terms governing its trade with the EU would be set under WTO rules.

A group of lawmakers said on Tuesday they would try to pass a law which would force May to seek a delay Brexit and thus prevent a no-deal exit on April 12.

For now, May’s deal is back in focus, though she must find a way to get around a ban on repeatedly bringing the same matter to a vote in parliament.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski in Brussels, Andreas Rinke and Michelle Martin in Berlin, William James and Ritvik Carvalho in London and Tom Miles in Geneva, Richard Lough, Michel Rose and John Irish in Paris; editing by Michael Holden and Angus MacSwan)

Britain’s May says she will quit if her Brexit deal passes

By Guy Faulconbridge, Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday she would quit if her twice-defeated EU divorce deal passes at the third attempt, making a last-ditch bid to persuade rebels in her Conservative party to back her.

May told a meeting of Conservative lawmakers she would stand down if her divorce plan finally got through a bitterly-divided parliament, to ensure a smooth path for a new leader to begin the next step of negotiating the future relationship with the European Union.

“I have heard very clearly the mood of the parliamentary party,” May said. “I know there is a desire for a new approach – and new leadership – in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations – and I won’t stand in the way of that.”

May’s announcement is the latest dramatic turn in the United Kingdom’s three-year Brexit crisis, but it is still remains uncertain how, when or even if it will leave the European Union.

Many of the Conservative rebels who want a cleaner break from the EU than May’s deal would deliver had made it clear that they would only consider supporting her agreement if she gave a firm commitment and date for her resignation.

May, a vicar’s daughter, had already promised to step down before the next election, due in 2022. By agreeing to go sooner, she increases the chances of her EU deal passing before the new April 12 deadline.

“I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to do what is right for our country and our party,” May told the party meeting, according to extracts released by her office.

“I ask everyone in this room to back the deal so we can complete our historic duty – to deliver on the decision of the British people and leave the European Union with a smooth and orderly exit.”

The government is now expected to bring the deal back to parliament for a third vote on Friday.

“It was inevitable and I just feel she’s made the right decision. She has actually read the mood of the party, which was a surprise,” said Conservative lawmaker Pauline Latham.

May’s deal means Britain will leave the EU single market and customs union as well as EU political bodies.

But it requires some EU rules to apply unless ways can be found in the future to ensure no border is rebuilt between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

Many Conservative rebels have objected to this so-called Irish backstop, saying it risks binding Britain to the EU for years. But given the choice between the backstop and no Brexit at all, more should come round.

Some of the party’s most influential dissenters had already indicated they would back her deal, agreed after two years of talks with the EU, saying it was the least worst option.

May’s deal was defeated in parliament by 149 votes on March 12 and by 230 votes on Jan. 15.

While May was telling her lawmakers of her intention to quit in a parliament committee room, MPs in the main chamber debated eight Brexit options ranging from leaving abruptly with no deal to revoking the divorce papers or holding a new referendum.

Several options on the table would see much closer alignments with the EU than May has been willing to consider, including staying in the common market or a customs union. They will vote at 1900 GMT on a ballot paper for as many proposals as they wish. Results will be announced after 2100 GMT.

The United Kingdom was originally due to leave the EU on March 29 but last week the EU granted an extension to the divorce date until April 12.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan, Andrew MacAskill, Paul Sandle, Kate Holton, William Schomberg, Elisabeth O’Leary, and James Davey; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Returning to London, Britain’s May faces mammoth task to change minds on Brexit

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives for a news briefing after meeting with EU leaders in Brussels, Belgium May 22, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville

By Alastair Macdonald and Elizabeth Piper

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May returned on Friday to her mammoth struggle of persuading a deeply divided parliament to back her Brexit deal after an EU summit granted her more time but little to help change minds in London.

After a bruising day in Brussels, May secured a two-week reprieve to try to get the deal she negotiated in November through parliament at a third attempt or face a potentially chaotic departure from the European Union as soon as April 12.

EU leaders were clear that it was now up to the British parliament to decide the fate of Brexit – to leave with a deal in a couple of months, depart without an agreement, come up with a new plan, or possibly remain in the bloc.

While the Brexit deadline may have moved from the originally planned March 29, however, parliament shows no sign of budging.

In fact, incensed by comments from May that pinned the blame for the Brexit chaos on them, many British lawmakers have now hardened their resistance to the deal she will bring back before them next week.

In an appeal to the very same lawmakers she criticized on Wednesday, May said in the early hours of Friday: “Last night I expressed my frustration. I know that MPs (members of parliament) are frustrated too. They have difficult jobs to do. I hope we can all agree, we are now at the moment of decision.”

She needs to change the minds of 75 more lawmakers to get her deal through after it was overwhelmingly rejected twice before.

While EU leaders were keen to heap pressure on the British parliament, some – with the notable exception of France -suggested Britain could still win more time to prepare for a no-deal Brexit if lawmakers fail to approve the divorce deal by April 12.

“HOPE DIES LAST”

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar summed up the mood in Brussels when he spoke of overwhelming fatigue with Brexit while also issuing a tongue-in-cheek reminder to Britain that EU and non-EU countries can get along fine.

“There is Brexit fatigue across the European Union, I think there’s Brexit fatigue in the UK as well – people really want certainty,” he told a news conference.

With Brussels keen to shift the onus of responsibility to London, European Council President Donald Tusk said: “The fate of Brexit is in the hands of our British friends. We are, as the EU, prepared for the worst but hope for the best. As you know, hope dies last.”

French President Emmanuel Macron took a potshot at Brexit supporters. “Brexiteer leaders told people leaving would be easy. Bravo.”

Leaders doubted whether May could get her deal through parliament, which like the country itself is deeply split over how, or even if, Britain should leave the EU after a 2016 referendum when 52 percent backed Brexit against 48 percent.

Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said he believed May had a 50:50 chance of getting the deal through.

Macron told the summit that before coming to Brussels he had thought May had a 10 percent chance of winning the vote. After listening to the prime minister, he said, he had cut his estimate to five percent.

NEW VOTES

Parliament will start next week with another vote on Brexit, which may open the way for lawmakers to be able to vote on alternative options for Britain’s departure.

Stepping up the pressure on May, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said it was time for parliament to take over Brexit from May, and for lawmakers to make their own decisions about Britain’s future.

With parliament deadlocked so far, the lack of certainty is encouraging some Britons to try to influence politicians from the streets or over the Internet.

Hundreds of thousands are expected to march through central London on Saturday calling for a second Brexit referendum, while an online petition demanding May revoke the EU leave notice and stop Brexit altogether has got more than 3 million signatures.

Seven hours of summit brainstorming on Thursday kept a host of options open for the EU leaders, who say they regret Britain’s decision to leave but are eager to move on from what they increasingly see as a distraction.

A first-ever leaders’ dinner debate over the EU’s China policy at the summit got delayed until Friday because of Brexit.

Now a May 22 departure date will apply if parliament rallies behind the British prime minister next week. If it does not, Britain will have until April 12 to offer a new plan or decide to leave the European Union without a treaty.

In the case of a longer extension, the main idea is for one-year, EU officials said. That would give Britain time to hold an election, and possibly a second referendum if it chose to, and avoid an even longer delay that would complicate negotiations for a new long-term EU budget.

(Additional reporting by William James, Gabriela Baczynska, Robin Emmott, Philip Blenkinsop, Richard Lough, Francesco Guarascio, Andreas Rinke; writing by Elizabeth Piper and Alastair Macdonald, Editing by Jon Boyle and Gareth Jones)

Brexit: Where will the UK end up: fudge, no-deal exit or halting Brexit?

FILE PHOTO: An EU flag flutters next to the statue of Winston Churchill outside the Houses of Parliament, ahead of a vote on Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal, in London, Britain January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

By Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew MacAskill

LONDON (Reuters) – With just 10 weeks until the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union, it is unclear how or even whether the divorce will take place.

The crushing defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal means she must now work with other parties in parliament on a new variant if she is to avoid a no-deal Brexit or the other option, a referendum on membership.

As the clock ticks down to 2300 GMT on March 29, the time and date set in law for Brexit, May has three main options: a compromise deal, a no-deal Brexit or halting Brexit altogether.

FUDGED DEAL

After her defeat, May pledged to speak to senior to parliamentarians to find a compromise, and financial markets are betting that lawmakers will cobble together a last-minute deal.

The opposition Labour Party’s finance policy spokesman, John McDonnell, said Labour would support May if she agreed to stay in a permanent customs union with the EU, a close relationship with its single market and greater protections for workers and consumers.

With May’s Conservatives deeply split, the opposition party holds great influence over the eventual outcome of Brexit. It is difficult to see how any Brexit plan can pass the House of Commons without the support of some of Labour’s 256 lawmakers.

But if May moves closer to Labour’s position, she risks losing the support of dozens of pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers as well as the small Northern Irish party which props up her minority government.

If May is unable to forge a compromise deal, she will have to chose between calling a national election, delaying Brexit or going for a no-deal exit.

Many Conservative lawmakers would oppose fighting a national election at such a crucial juncture, especially after she lost the party its majority in a snap poll in 2017. May herself said on Wednesday an election would be “the worst thing we could do”.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier indicated that one way forward would be for Britain to accept closer alignment with EU regulations. EU officials say London could, for example, abandon its plan to leave the EU customs union and single market, but that is unlikely to win backing among many Conservatives.

NO-DEAL BREXIT

Despite strong opposition among a majority of British lawmakers and many businesses to leaving the EU without a deal, this remains the default option unless parliament can agree on a Brexit plan.

“It is not enough to just not like May’s deal – to not have a no-deal there has to be something to replace it with, otherwise we leave without a deal,” said one senior British lawmaker.

No-deal means there would be no transition so the exit would be abrupt, the nightmare scenario for international businesses and the dream of hard Brexiteers who want a decisive split.

Britain is a member of the World Trade Organization so tariffs and other terms governing its trade with the EU would be set under WTO rules.

Business leaders are triggering contingency plans to cope with additional checks on the post-Brexit UK-EU border they fear will clog ports, silt up the arteries of trade and dislocate supply chains in Europe and beyond.

Brexit supporters say there would be short-term disruption but in the long-term the UK would thrive if cut free from what they cast as a doomed experiment in German-dominated unity that is falling behind China and the United States.

NO BREXIT

Since the 2016 referendum, opponents of Brexit have sought another vote they hope would overturn the result, but May has repeatedly ruled this out, saying it would undermine faith in democracy among the 17.4 million who voted in 2016 to leave.

A new referendum can only be called if it is approved by parliament and there is currently no majority in favor of one.

The opposition Labour Party wants to push for an election and only if that is rejected will it consider another referendum. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is a veteran euroskeptic who has also spoken out in the past against a second referendum.

However, a prominent pro-EU Conservative lawmaker, Dominic Grieve, on Wednesday submitted legislation making provisions for a second Brexit referendum.

If parliament agreed to a second referendum, Britain would have to ask for an extension to its timetable for leaving the EU to allow enough time for a campaign, probably by withdrawing its Article 50 formal departure notification.

The Electoral Commission would have to agree what question, or questions, would be asked of the public.

At the highest levels of government, there are worries that a second referendum would exacerbate the deep divisions exposed by the 2016 referendum, alienate millions of pro-Brexit voters and stoke support for the far-right. If Britons voted to remain, Brexit supporters might then demand a third and decisive vote.

“I became prime minister immediately after that (2016) referendum,” May said minutes after her Brexit deal was rejected on Tuesday. ”I believe it is my duty to deliver on their instruction and I intend to do so.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Gareth Jones)

‘A very uncivil war’: Britain’s Conservatives on the brink over Brexit

A cyclist displaying Unioin Flags passes the Houses of Parliament, in Westminster, central London, Britain December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

By Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – The divorce deal British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed with the European Union after months of tortuous negotiations was meant to unite her ruling Conservative Party over Brexit.

But a month later, rifts over Europe run so deep lawmakers have triggered a leadership contest that some members fear could tear apart a centuries-old institution that has produced prime ministers such as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.

Divisions over how close Britain should be tied to Europe contributed to the downfall of May’s three predecessors: David Cameron, John Major and Thatcher. May will become the next victim if a simple majority of her lawmakers move against her in a confidence vote on her leadership on Wednesday evening.

While a party split may still seem a distant option, former Conservative party leader William Hague and former attorney general Dominic Grieve have both raised the specter of an end to the Conservative Party in its current form.

With her job on the line, May too appealed on Wednesday for an end to the bitter Conservative infighting.

“Weeks spent tearing ourselves apart will only create more division just as we should be standing together to serve our country,” she said outside her Downing Street office.

As the scheduled date for Britain’s departure from the European Union on March 29 draws near, Brexit supporters are doing little to hide their disdain for the government or their pro-EU colleagues – and vice versa.

May and her team are often now described in brutally harsh terms, with some lawmakers feeling betrayed by what one calls the “sophistry” of using soundbites and “clever language” to cloud what they say is her soft position towards the EU.

“A very uncivil war has broken out,” one Conservative lawmaker said on condition of anonymity.

He said he had broken a long tradition of having breakfast in the parliament canteen because it had become a “toxic place”. He now eats in a nearby cafe.

TRENCHANT OPPOSITION

More worrying for May is the lack of trust she now inspires in her so-called backbenchers, the lawmakers she needs to get any legislation, including the Brexit deal, through parliament.

“So many MPs were opposed to the prime minister, and so trenchantly, that it is hard to see them coming to a consensus,” Hague wrote in pro-Conservative The Telegraph newspaper.

“If they fail to do so, they will have to brace themselves for the divisions among them to be exacerbated by a party leadership election, or a general election, or another referendum campaign or all of those one after the other.”

The Conservative Party, which returned to power in 2010 after more than a decade of Labour Party rule, has been divided over the EU for decades but the 2016 referendum Cameron called to settle the rows for good have only worsened the schisms.

Since the text of a divorce deal was agreed on Nov. 13 setting out the terms on which the country would leave on March 29, positions have hardened among Conservatives.

Pro-Brexit campaigners accuse May of trying to keep Britain too closely aligned with the EU even after the country leaves when they want a clean break with Brussels.

May’s decision to delay a parliamentary vote on the deal this week provoked anger among members because ministers had promised until the very last minute it would go ahead. One had confirmed Britain must push ahead with the debate just hours before May’s U-turn.

“Theresa May’s plan would bring down the government if carried forward. But our party will rightly not tolerate it,” pro-Brexit campaigners Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker said in a statement. “In the national interest, she must go.”

‘FEEDING THIS MONSTER’

Pro-EU Conservatives were equally entrenched with the future of Britain’s $2.8 trillion economy at stake in the country’s most significant political decision since World War Two.

“I think this is a disgraceful move by a small group of people who are engaging in their ideologically driven self-interest,” Conservative lawmaker Anna Soubry said on Wednesday after the leadership challenge was announced.

“Unfortunately, Theresa has been feeding this monster that now has turned on her to try and, in turn, eat her … If she doesn’t sort these people out, then our party is doomed.”

For many Brexit supporters, trust in the government has long been undermined. They felt May had taken on their Brexit platform of leaving the EU’s single market and customs union when she launched the negotiations to leave.

But that confidence has been whittled away since she lost the party’s majority in an election she need not have called in June 2017, with one Brexit supporter saying: “Since the election … it’s been downhill all the way.”

The Labour Party is now pressing for an election, something several Conservative lawmakers say the squabbling party is far from prepared for. But Labour also is deeply divided over Brexit and some in its ranks say it too would suffer under the spotlight of an election.

Still, the Conservative Party has been disciplined in its pursuit of power, and some say that while the atmosphere is bad at the moment, it may pass when Brexit is over.

“There are some people who disagree profoundly with other people,” one Conservative lawmaker said. “You might get one of two disaffected people swanning off, but I don’t think it will amount to a split.”

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; additional reporting by William James; editing by David Clarke)

Britain’s May bows to Brexit pressure in parliament

Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May, arrives at Downing Street, in central London, Britain July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

By William James and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May bowed to pressure from Brexit supporters in her governing Conservative Party on Monday, accepting their changes to a customs bill that underpins Britain’s departure from the European Union.

May, vulnerable in parliament after losing her party’s majority at an ill-judged election last year, has come under fire from both wings of her party over a hard-won Brexit plan, with one ex-minister calling it the “worst of all worlds”.

Eurosceptic lawmakers had targeted her government’s customs legislation to try to toughen up her plans to leave the EU, but instead of facing them down and fuelling tensions, her spokesman said the government would accept their four amendments.

It was not clear the move would fundamentally change her plans – the changes do little more than to put government policy into law, her spokesman said – but it was a victory of sorts for those lawmakers who say May has betrayed them on Brexit, the biggest shift in British trade and foreign policy for decades.

“We will be accepting those four amendments,” the spokesman told reporters, saying the government believed they were “consistent” with the white paper policy document ministers agreed earlier this month.

“We have accepted these amendments because we believe them to be consistent with the approach that was set out and agreed at Chequers,” he said.

May had to fight hard to get the agreement of cabinet ministers at her Chequers country residence for her vision for Britain’s future ties with the EU, only for it to be undermined by the resignations last week of her Brexit minister David Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson.

The plan, only a starting point for the second phase of talks with the EU, has come under fire from other eurosceptic lawmakers, who say the proposal to keep close customs ties to the EU betrays her commitment for a clean break with the bloc.

The battle over the amendments to the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill, or customs bill, is unlikely to be the last that May and her team will have to face.

“WORST OF BOTH WORLDS”

On Monday, the other wing of May’s Conservative Party – those lawmakers who want to keep the closest possible ties with the EU after Brexit – spoke up in the voice of former education minister Justine Greening who called for a second referendum.

Greening said such a vote was the only way to break the stalemate in parliament over the best future relationship with the bloc and branded May’s plan as “a fudge I can’t support. It’s the worst of both worlds”.

May’s spokesman said there would be no second referendum under any circumstances, and restated her position that the Chequers plan was the only way to deliver a Brexit that worked in the best interests of the country.

Another pro-EU lawmaker Dominic Grieve, who has led previous efforts to get the government to soften its Brexit stance, said the party needed to accept compromises “or accept that Brexit cannot be implemented and think again about what we are doing”.

For now the impetus lies with the Brexit supporters.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, an arch eurosceptic who proposed the amendments, said he did not expect the bill, or another bill on trade due to be debated on Tuesday, to be blocked outright by the 650-member parliament. Rees-Mogg said that he wanted rather to test the support in parliament for changing her strategy.

“I’m sure Theresa May does not want to split the Conservative Party and therefore she will find that the inevitable consequence of the parliamentary arithmetic is that she will need to change it (the Brexit policy) to keep the party united,” Rees-Mogg said.

(Reporting by William James, additional reporting by Michael Holden and Elizabeth Piper; Editing by David Stamp and Gareth Jones)

With housing blocks failing safety checks, UK’s May calls for more tests

Cladding is removed from the side of Whitebean Court in Salford, Manchester,

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May appealed to landlords of high-rise buildings on Monday to allow potentially flammable building material to be tested, seeking to reassure residents after a tower block fire killed 79 people in London.

The Grenfell Tower blaze, which trapped dozens of people in their beds, has become a focus of public anger at the Conservative government’s austerity cuts and the perceived slow response in trying to look after those who escaped.

The government said the number of high-rise tower blocks in England found to have “cladding” – panels placed on the facades of buildings, mainly for insulation or to improve their appearance – that have failed fire safety tests had risen to 75 from 60.

Communities minister Sajid Javid said that all samples submitted had failed the tests, which May’s spokesman had earlier said was “concerning”.

May, who scored a deal with a Northern Irish party to prop up her minority government on Monday, wants to repair her authority by showing leadership in dealing with the aftermath of the June 14 Grenfell disaster, but faces criticism by her political opponents.

“Clearly it’s concerning, concerning for residents who are living in these blocks,” the spokesman told reporters at a regular government briefing.

“That’s why we have put in place a system where testing can be carried out very quickly and whereby local authorities are informed immediately when a positive test comes back and that appropriate measures are put in place,” he said.

Responding to criticism that the testing program was not running quickly enough, he said landlords must get potentially flammable building materials tested as soon as possible.

Material should also be tested in schools and hospitals if there were safety concerns there too.

Some 600 buildings are being tested, showing how widely combustible cladding may have been used across Britain.

“It is clearly of huge concern that this is the case,” the spokesman said.

“What is apparent is that this is on buildings across the country … Obviously the job for the public inquiry will be to find out how and why this happened,” he said, hoping there would be an earlier interim report to cast some light on why such materials were used and whether they met safety requirements.

U.S. firm Arconic Inc said it was stopping global sales of its Reynobond PE cladding, which was used in Grenfell Tower, for use in high-rise buildings following the fire. Shares in Arconic fell around 5 percent.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Alistair Smout; editing by Mark Heinrich)

MI5 to review its handling of intelligence on Manchester bomber

Armed police officers stand next to a police cordon outside the Manchester Arena, where U.S. singer Ariana Grande had been performing, in Manchester, northern England, Britain, May 23, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew

By Costas Pitas

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s MI5 has begun an internal review of how it handled intelligence on Manchester suicide bomber Salman Abedi, who was known to the authorities but not under active investigation, a source told Reuters on Monday.

Interior minister Amber Rudd said the review was the “right first step” for the intelligence agency to take in the wake of the May 22 bombing that killed 22 people at a pop concert by U.S. singer Ariana Grande.

MI5 is subject to scrutiny by a committee of parliament, and it is highly unusual for British authorities to make public that the security service is conducting its own internal investigation into possible lapses.

“The review will look at what was known about Abedi, what decisions were made about the intelligence and what, if anything, could have been done differently,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“This is a review that would seek to answer whether there are lessons to be learned from how the Security Service handled the intelligence on Abedi.”

The source told Reuters that Abedi was not among the 3,000 people currently under active investigation by MI5, although he was one of around 20,000 people known to the agency, whose focus is on countering terrorism and espionage.

The BBC said MI5 was alerted at least three times to theĀ  ‘extremist views’ of Abedi, a 22-year-old who grew up in Manchester in a family of immigrants from Libya. It was not possible to confirm that report.

“This is an ongoing investigation so I’m not going to be drawn into comments on the actual man who committed this crime,” Rudd told BBC television, declining to say what was known about Abedi and when.

Last week’s attack, the deadliest in Britain since 2005, was claimed by Islamic State. It drew particular revulsion because of the targeting of children – the youngest victim was just eight years old, and nine of the others were teenagers.

Balloons and floral tributes for the victims of the attack on the Manchester Arena are seen in St Ann's square in Manchester, Britain, May 24, 2017.

FILE PHOTO: Balloons and floral tributes for the victims of the attack on the Manchester Arena are seen in St Ann’s square in Manchester, Britain, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

Earlier on Monday, police made a 16th arrest as part of the case.

Britons head to the polls in 10 days’ time to elect a new government, with security and police cuts having risen to the top of the political agenda since the bombing last Monday.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives have seen their poll lead cut in the wake of the attack and after a U-turn over their social care plans for the elderly.

Surveys suggest May – who as a former interior minister oversaw the police and domestic intelligence agency – might not win the landslide predicted just a month ago.

It was not clear whether the authorities became aware of Abedi during May’s tenure as interior minister between 2010 and 2016.

British security services have thwarted 18 militant plots in the UK since 2013, including five since an attack in central London in March, when a man mowed down pedestrians in a car and then stabbed a policeman at the entrance to parliament, a source with knowledge of the matter told Reuters last week.

(Additional reporting by Sangameswaran S in Bengaluru; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mark Trevelyan)