TORIES’ CIVIL WAR ERUPTS
May edges towards customs union – but Corbyn deal could spark Cabinet exodus
THERESA May was edging towards a customs union deal with Jeremy Corbyn last night – despite warnings it would plunge the Tories into civil war.
Downing Street said talks with Mr Corbyn would continue today, despite a furious revolt from senior Tories at the prospect of pushing through a soft Brexit deal with the help of Labour’s ‘Marxist’ leader.
In a sign that Mrs May is serious about a compromise, her chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins was in attendance to provide advice on options that would have a chance of success in Brussels.
Two ministers resigned in protest at the decision to meet with Mr Corbyn yesterday, and senior Tories warned of an exodus of Brexiteer Cabinet ministers.
Former party leader Iain Duncan Smith said: ‘The spectre of Corbyn lording it over us in a prime ministerial way as he wrecks Brexit makes my blood run cold and fear for my party and my country.’
Cabinet ministers believe at least eight members could quit if the PM agrees to a formal customs union with the EU. One source said: ‘It can’t be a permanent customs union because it’s against the manifesto. If you do that then people will walk.’
Chancellor Philip Hammond later risked a backlash of his own after he suggested there should be a vote on a second referendum.
A group of 19 senior Brexiteers – including four Cabinet ministers – met in Andrea Leadsom’s office yesterday, in a move that will pile more pressure on Mrs May. Among those present were Penny Mordaunt, Chris Grayling and Liz Truss. Mr Corbyn also faced a backlash from his own party following the talks, as sources indicated he would not insist on a second referendum as the price for a deal.
Those involved in the negotiations said the two sides were exploring whether they could reach agreement on a customs union, as well as Labour’s demands that the Government adopts new EU laws on workers’ rights and environmental standards after Brexit. The talks came as: Mrs May insisted they were ‘only way to deliver the smooth, orderly Brexit we promised’;
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox led Cabinet efforts to make the case for a customs union compromise;
Four Tory MPs used Prime Minister’s Questions to ask Mrs May why she was dealing with a man she has branded ‘unfit for office’;
Eurosceptic Tory MPs were blocked from holding a symbolic vote of no confidence in Mrs May;
John Bercow fast-tracked a change in the law to force Mrs May to seek a longer Brexit delay;
Downing Street prepared for MEP elections on May 23 – but said they could be called off with 24 hours’ notice if a deal is struck;
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry wrote to Labour MPs saying any deal ‘must be subject to a confirmatory public vote’;
Brexit minister Chris HeatonHarris, who resigned yesterday, said Britain was ready to leave with No Deal next week.
The Prime Minister made the momentous decision to drop her Brexit red lines and open talks with Mr Corbyn following a fractious Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. If her talks with Labour are successful, the resulting deal could be put to a Commons vote on Monday.
It could then be presented to EU leaders at an emergency Brussels summit on Wednesday, when Mrs May will request a delay to the UK’s departure date – currently set at April 12. Emerging from talks in Mrs May’s Commons office yesterday, Mr Corbyn said the discussions had gone ‘very well’.
He later played down expectations of a breakthrough, saying: ‘There hasn’t been as much change as I expected.’ Downing Street described the talks as ‘constructive’. Discussions between the two camps will resume today – but neither Mr Corbyn nor Mrs May will be involved directly.
If the talks fail, No 10 has said it will try to agree a compromise deal with Parliament next week through some form of ‘ run- off ’
‘Makes my blood run cold’
with Mrs May’s deal. This would also be likely to involve a customs union. Wales Office minister Nigel Adams became the 35th minister to quit Mrs May’s government in the past 12 months yesterday morning. In his resignation letter he said Mrs May was ‘failing’. Mr Heaton- Harris, who became number 36, said No Deal preparations were ‘well advanced’ and suggested the UK would ‘swiftly overcome’ any problems.
It came as Mr Hammond said a ‘confirmatory referendum’ on Mrs May’s deal versus Remain was a ‘perfectly credible proposition’.
He told ITV’s Peston: ‘Some ideas have been put forward which are not negotiable. But the confirmatory referendum idea, many people will disagree with it, I’m not sure there’s a majority in Parliament for it, but it’s a perfectly credible proposition and it deserves to be tested in Parliament.’
Serious: Theresa May leaves Parliament yesterday. Above: Liz Truss, left, and Andrea Leadsom attended a meeting of Cabinet Brexiteers