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article imageBritish Tories unified with Brexiteers the new establishment

By Katherine Haddon (AFP)     Oct 5, 2016 in World

Brexit prompted the resignation of the UK's prime minister and the reshaping of the country's government, but the ruling Conservative Party has already rebounded and is showing a united front.

The jubilant mood at the annual Conservatives conference is being led by its hardline eurosceptics -- for years the awkward squad within the party.

The three ministers charged with negotiating Britain's EU withdrawal, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis, all campaigned against former premier David Cameron to leave in June's vote.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union
Adrian Dennis, AFP/File

While Prime Minister Theresa May also wanted to remain, she has wooed eurosceptics by hinting she backs a clear break with the European Union at this week's Tory conference in Birmingham, central England.

She said Britain would trigger Brexit negotiations by the end of March, putting it on course to leave the bloc by early 2019, while suggesting a willingness to leave the single market in return for control over immigration.

"Wahey!" was how Brexit minister Davis summed up his reaction to the referendum result on Tuesday, while Johnson gleefully dismissed "any lingering gloomadon-poppers" doubting the value of Brexit.

Delegates at the annual Conservative Party conference in Birmingham  central England  on October 4  ...
Delegates at the annual Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, central England, on October 4, 2016
Ben Stansall, AFP

Most party activists and supporters share the sense of optimism.

"It's a massive opportunity," said Bradley Allen, a 19-year-old who works in the health sector and is active in local politics in the West Midlands.

"Outside the EU, we will flourish as a country. There are countless possibilities of what we can achieve".

"Personally, I can't envisage how anybody who has studied European law and aspects of sovereignty around it can support the EU," added Jonathan Pessol, a 34-year-old part-time Asian antiquities specialist.

- 'Elated' Brexiteers -

Just over three months ago, the Conservatives' leadership looked and felt very different.

A delegate at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham  central England  wears Union Jack soc...
A delegate at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, central England, wears Union Jack socks
Ben Stansall, AFP

Cameron -- conspicuous by his absence from this year's conference -- was arguing fiercely for EU membership, along with most of his ministers. Opponents were viewed with suspicion at best, as traitors at worst.

Now his allies are leading the resistance to a "hard Brexit" in which Britain would have a minimal, or even no, free trade deal with the EU.

Former Cameron minister Nick Herbert has labelled Johnson, Davis and Fox "three blind mice" while former education minister Nicky Morgan argues that a "hard" Brexit could foster bigotry and intolerance.

Pro-EU voices are relatively unusual among grassroots members.

Britain voted to leave the European Union in a referendum in June 2016
Britain voted to leave the European Union in a referendum in June 2016
Justin Tallis, AFP/File

But Anne Broomhead was one who insisted she still felt the Conservatives were her party, despite being "gutted" by the referendum result.

"The people who wanted to leave are joyful and elated. I think there's a stoicism and acceptance in people who wanted to remain," said the retired teacher from Manchester, northwest England.

"Practically, we have to get on with it... you've got to make the best of it."

Another delegate sporting a T-shirt which said "Don't blame me, I voted Remain" cast a lonely figure as he walked around the conference venue.

- Could the mood sour? -

The result is that a party which has been at war over Europe for years seems to have come together -- for now at least.

David Cameron quit as prime minister after Britain voted to leave the European Union in a referendum
David Cameron quit as prime minister after Britain voted to leave the European Union in a referendum
Philippe Huguen, AFP/File

"It's has been very quick," said Leave supporter Ros Lloyd, 59, from south Manchester.

"I think it's surprised a lot of us how we seemed to be at loggerheads before but now we have very much come together."

Not all Tories believe May has changed her mind and now fully believes in Brexit but say she knows she has a responsibility to deliver.

"The leadership has taken in what the party and the country have said," said Pessol. "They've not had a conversion on the road to Damascus."

Commentators warn that the sense of unity could be shattered once difficult negotiations with the other 27 European countries start next year.

"Theresa May now has the not insignificant task of fulfilling her promises. That's no easy job," wrote Tom Goodenough in the Spectator, a right-wing magazine popular with Conservatives.

"If she fails to live up to her words, the warm mood on the backbenches could quickly go sour."

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