May suspends rebels over key EU trade vote
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