PM: We’ve 9 days to save Brexit
May is up for fight in ‘momentous’ days ahead of crunch vote No 10 fury over Minister’s ‘stab in the back’ resignation
THERESA May last night warned the country she had ‘nine days to save Brexit’ – as her allies fumed at the ‘betrayal’ by a Government Minister who quit over her deal with Brussels.
The Prime Minister told The Mail on Sunday she would not be deterred by the resignation of Universities Minister Sam Gyimah over a demand for a second referendum – and promised to fight tirelessly during the ‘momentous’ days ahead to win the crunch Commons vote on December 11.
Her remarks, at the G20 summit of world leaders in Buenos Aires, Argentina, came as:
A cross-party group of MPs tried to crank up the pressure on Mrs May to call a second referendum;
At least eight Cabinet Ministers lobbied for a Norway-style membership of a customs union if Mrs May loses the vote;
Tony Blair revealed how the Government had lobbied him to back Mrs May over her deal;
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used the summit to issue an appeal to the Prime Minister to prevent a no-deal Brexit;
Mrs May signalled her confidence that she would still be Prime Minister at Christmas by starting to send out official cards from No10;
A Tory MP accused Mrs May of ‘snubbing’ the Falklands by refusing to visit the disputed territory after her trip to Argentina.
Mr Gyimah said he was resigning from the Government because Mrs May’s deal would mean the UK losing its voice in the EU while still having to abide by the bloc’s rules.
He said: ‘In these protracted negotiations, our interests will be repeatedly and permanently hammered by the EU27 for many years to come.
‘Britain will end up worse off, transformed from rule makers into rule takers… To vote for this deal is to set ourselves up for failure. We will be losing, not taking control, of our national destiny.’
His move meant that the No 10 team in Buenos Aires spent Friday battling in vain to avert his resignation – while juggling diplomatically fraught encounters with Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
They were also furious that Mr Gyimah’s resignation – the seventh by a Minister over the issue – overshadowed a carefully timed declaration of support by Environment Secretary and leading Brexiteer Michael Gove. A senior source said: ‘It’s a stab in the back from someone [Mr Gyimah] who hopes to be leader. But the only person tipping Sam for leader is Sam.’
But Mrs May told this newspaper she ‘profoundly disagreed’ with Mr Gyimah for wanting a second referendum and that voting down her deal in an attempt to achieve it would end the Brexit project altogether.
Mrs May said: ‘If you look around the Commons you will see people who are trying to frustrate Brexit. We are nine days from the meaningful vote. At the end of those nine days we want to be able to look to a bright and certain future.
‘This is a momentous period in our country’s history, and over the next nine days I want to focus on the significance of this vote, because it determines our future’.
It is the second time that Mrs May has been ‘betrayed’ by a Minister over a second referendum while she carried out foreign duties. Last month, Transport Minister Jo Johnson quit while she attended Remembrance services in Europe.
Mrs May insists she can still carry the vote through the Commons on December 11, despite calculations that more than 100 Tory MPs could rebel. Asked by this newspaper if she expected to be celebrating Christmas as Prime Minister, she said: ‘This has never been about me… actually over the next nine days I am not going to be giving Christmas much thought at all. I am going to be focusing on this deal.’
But it is understood that Mrs May has already started sending the offi- cial Prime Ministerial Christmas cards. And she cited her cricketing hero Geoffrey Boycott to say that over the next nine days she would make sure she was ‘steadily scoring those runs, getting that century’.
Mrs May, making the first visit to Buenos Aires by a British Prime Minister, added that she had used the G20 summit ‘have a chat with Donald Trump… we both acknowledged we will be able to do a trade deal’.
Mr Gove warned yesterday that leaving the EU would be under ‘great threat’ if the deal was rejected by MPs. But Mrs May is coming under intense cross-party pressure to agree to a second referendum if she loses the Commons vote, a move that would infuriate Tory pro-Brexit MPs. And she is also coming under intense pressure from Cabinet Ministers, led by Chancellor Philip Hammond, and MPs to avert the disruption of a ‘no deal’ by agreeing to remain in a customs union with the EU – described as ‘a Norway-style Plan B’ option – until the crisis can be resolved. The number of Cabinet
Ministers backing the plan is believed to have reached eight.
Last night, a coalition of 17 Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs provocatively released a joint statement calling for a second referendum. The group, including Labour’s Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger along with former Tory Ministers Phillip Lee and Guto Bebb, described December 11 as ‘one of the biggest votes since the Second World War’ and said it ‘was clear it will not command a majority’.
The group, which was last night hoping to add Mr Gyimah’s name to the call, said it was ‘time the country’s interests are put before any party political advantage… it is vital, given the speed with which events will unfold, that we do not prevaricate during these historic events in ensuring the people are given their rightful seat at the table’.
But Mrs May – if she has not been toppled as leader – will be subject to equal lobbying from Brexiteers to pursue a ‘managed no-deal’.
Despite her public refusal to countenance a second referendum – the so-called People’s Vote – Brexiteers both in and out of the Cabinet fear a ‘stitch up’ if Mrs May loses the vote and is unable to resist the clamour from Parliament for a fresh referendum.
One said: ‘The combination of proRemain Tories, most of the Labour Party and the instinctively antiBrexit Civil Service would want to join forces to create a bogus choice between May’s duff deal and remaining in the EU. We need to head that off now.’
Even former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair has said the options should be ‘the Boris Johnson version of Brexit’ – a clean break – or remaining in the EU.
Leave campaigners are confident they can win a second vote if a clean Brexit is one of the options.
Activists associated with both Vote Leave, the victorious 2016 campaign group, and Leave Means Leave, the pressure group lobbying for a clean Brexit, have already started preparing for a second referendum. Well-placed sources say their research indicates the vote on both sides has hardened.
One campaign slogan that has been bandied around is: ‘Tell Them Again’ – the ‘them’ being the political elite.
The MoS understands that Mr Blair held a secret meeting with a Government Minister who tried to persuade him to back Mrs May’s deal in exchange for a promise the UK would then pivot to a ‘soft’ Brexit.
Mr Blair told a private dinner last week that he had been approached by a Minister and asked if he would agree to drop his support for a second referendum.
The Minister told Mr Blair that if he backed Mrs May’s deal instead – to keep her in Downing Street – then ‘once we have got through Brexit we can switch to the Norway option instead’.
Under the Norway option, the UK would stay in the single market but could not control freedom of movement.
Mr Blair added that he had been in touch with leaders of EU countries and they all thought Mrs May’s deal was ‘absolute folly’.
Mr Abe’s plea, delivered as he met Mrs May at the G20 summit, follows warnings from Japanese companies in the UK over the extra costs and bureaucracy they will face if there is no deal.
Mr Abe told the Prime Minister: ‘I would like to take this opportunity to express my tribute to your leadership in realising the withdrawal agreement as well as the EU’s agreement on the political declaration. Also I would like to once again ask for your support to avoid no deal, as well as to ensure transparency, predictability as well as legal stability in the Brexit process.’
Mrs May has been accused of snubbing the Falkland Islands by refusing to visit the British territory after her trip to Argentina, accepting Foreign Office advice that it would be ‘provocative’. But Tory MP Bob Stewart said: ‘To hell with the Foreign Office.’
Last night, Mrs May batted away claims that this could be her last appearance on the international stage. She told reporters at the summit that she still had ‘a lot more to do, not least deliver on Brexit and be the Prime Minister that took Britain out of the EU’.
‘After Brexit we can switch to the Norway option ’