May sus­pends rebels over key EU trade vote

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - Tories at War - By Glen Owen PO­LIT­I­CAL COR­RE­SPON­DENT

THERESA MAY has sus­pended two of her MEPs for sup­port­ing a Brexit-block­ing res­o­lu­tion – as she pre­pares for a crit­i­cal EU sum­mit later this month.

With face-to-face talks due to re­sume to­mor­row be­tween Brexit Sec­re­tary David Davis and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief ne­go­tia­tor, Down­ing Street tried to flex its mus­cles by re­mov­ing the whip from South West MEP Julie Gir­ling and Richard Ashworth, who rep­re­sents the South East.

The pair had backed a res­o­lu­tion in Stras­bourg that called for trade talks not to be­gin un­til Bri­tain makes ma­jor con­ces­sions over North­ern Ire­land, the EU di­vorce bill and Euro­pean Court.

Mr Davis has also writ­ten to Labour leader Jeremy Cor­byn urg­ing him to re­move the whip from 18 Labour MEPs who backed the same res­o­lu­tion.

It comes as No10 grows in­creas­ingly wor­ried about the im­pact of the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions on Mrs May’s po­lit­i­cal future.

Mr Davis is be­lieved pri­vately to put the chance of the UK fail­ing to se­cure a deal from Brussels as high as 40 per cent – but if ma­jor con­ces­sions are made by the Gov­ern­ment at the sum­mit, such as pay­ing a high di­vorce bill, it could push Brexit-sup­port­ing MPs into the arms of lead­er­ship plot­ters.

If just one third of the 60 Tory MPs in the hard-Brexit Euro­pean Re­form Group joined Grant Shapps’s pre­dom­i­nantly Re­main-back­ing group of rebels, it could trig­ger a lead­er­ship con­test.

Ms Gir­ling and Mr Ashworth broke ranks with the 21-strong group of Con­ser­va­tive MEPs to back the res­o­lu­tion, which was tabled by the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment’s Brexit co-or­di­na­tor Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt.

A Gov­ern­ment source said the MEPs had be­haved ‘to­tally ir­re­spon­si­bly’ be­cause it will give a boost to those in Brussels hop­ing to de­lay progress on Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions. It was passed by 557 votes to 92, with 29 ab­sten­tions. The source said: ‘Re­gard­less of how you voted in the ref­er­en­dum, it is surely in every­one’s in­ter­ests – both in Bri­tain and in Europe – that talks can progress on trade and our future re­la­tion­ship.’ Brex­i­teer Min­is­ters are in­creas­ingly con­cerned that Olly Rob­bins, Mrs May’s Europe ad­viser, who re­cently moved from Mr Davis’s de­part­ment to a per­ma­nent berth at No10, wants to cave in to Brussels de­mands in or­der to get the EU to de­clare ‘suf­fi­cient progress’ has been made, al­low­ing trade talks to take place.

Mr Davis has mixed feel­ings about Mr Rob­bins’s move to Down­ing Street: the pair had clashed fre­quently, and Mr Davis had been con­cerned that Mr Rob­bins was act­ing as a No 10 ‘spy in the camp’.

But now his move has led to con­cerns within the De­part­ment for Ex­it­ing the Euro­pean Union that it is be­ing marginalised as No10 tight­ens its grip on the process.

Mr Rob­bins has started try­ing to poach of­fi­cials from Mr Davis’s team to join the new power­base.


FIRM: The EU’s chief ne­go­tia­tor Michel Barnier

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