MPs ‘will block May’s Brexit plan’
Back down or we will vote you down, says alliance of Eurosceptics and DUP ahead of Cabinet meeting
THERESA MAY’S Brexit plan will be blocked by MPs even if she is able to “bounce” the Cabinet into signing it off, the Prime Minister has been warned.
Senior members of the Eurosceptic grouping of Tory backbenchers and Democratic Unionist Party figures today publicly unite to insist they will vote against Mrs May’s proposals unless she backs down.
Their intervention came as senior government figures warned that the deal would still fall in Parliament even if it were forced through a reluctant Cabinet this week. A defeat for Mrs May would be likely to spark a leadership challenge.
The warnings come amid opposition from across the Conservative Party to a proposed “backstop”, or insurance plan, for the UK’s relationship with the EU if no alternative deal is reached.
Ministers and MPs are concerned it could allow for a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and would provide an insufficient mechanism for the country to extract itself from the EU’s structures.
The plan sparked the resignation of Jo Johnson, the pro-Remain transport minister, on Friday, on the basis it amounted to “vassalage” for the UK.
Around 10 Cabinet ministers have rejected the idea of an exit mechanism from the backstop that depends on the EU giving its permission for the UK to leave its structures, leading to speculation some may resign. But a senior Tory claimed the ministers would ultimately “fall like paper tigers” – referring to a Chinese expression about objects that appear threatening but are ineffectual.
One minister said: “She could force it through [Cabinet] with a majority but she wouldn’t get it through the Commons”. “The problem is going to be when it gets to the House,” a second government figure added.
In a highly unusual joint warning, Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the European Research Group of backbenchers, and Sammy Wilson, the DUP Brexit spokesman, today state explicitly that they will vote against the plan if Mrs May refuses to back down.
“We share the Prime Minister’s ambition for an EU free trade agreement, but not at any price and certainly not at the price of our Union. If the Government makes the historic mistake of prioritising placating the EU over establishing an independent and whole
UK, then regrettably we must vote against the deal,” they write in The Sunday Telegraph.
Some 51 Tories have publicly signed a pledge opposing Mrs May’s Brexit plans. A significant number of the 13 Scottish Conservative MPs could also oppose the plan. Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, and David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, fear that any special status that keeps Northern Ireland in the single market would lead to pressure for a similar arrangement for Scotland. They are also concerned over demands by Brussels for EU boats to be free to fish in UK waters as part of the backstop deal.
In other developments:
Senior government figures are discussing the possibility of a new leader taking over from Mrs May and “resetting” the negotiations – including strengthening planning for a “no deal” outcome – if European judges rule later this month that the UK can revoke the Article 50 notice requiring a withdrawal agreement by next March. They believe such a ruling could offer a replacement leader “breathing space” to broker a new deal.
A dozen Tory association chairmen have signed a letter insisting “no deal” is better than the current offer. They back calls by Cabinet Brexiteers for a unilateral exit mechanism, which has been rejected by Brussels. Without it, the deal will “fly in the face of the referendum result” and “run totally contrary to Tory values”.
Martin Howe, a pro-Leave QC, said current plans for a “review mechanism” to extract the UK from the backstop, risk “dropping the UK into a legal
black hole for probably a number of years and quite possibly for longer”.
On Friday night a report claimed that the mechanism, talked up by Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, as a potential solution, had already been rejected by the EU.
In a sign of growing concern in No10 over the prospects of Mrs May’s plan being approved by Parliament, a Downing Street source insisted last night that she would not agree a deal “at any cost”.
The DUP’s 10 MPs have been propping up the Government since last year’s election. Mrs May has pledged not to allow Northern Ireland to be divided from the rest of the UK after Brexit, amid the EU’s insistence that special arrangements would be required for the region in order to avoid a hard border with the Republic if no other deal is reached.
But a letter from Mrs May last week led the party to believe she was preparing to allow Northern Ireland-only measures in the divorce deal, on the basis they would never come into force.
Yesterday, Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionists, said her party opposed Mrs May’s plans and that they enjoyed “support from MPs across the United Kingdom”.
Today’s joint warning by Mr Baker and Mr Wilson signals that the DUP would work with the European Research Group, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, to defeat the deal. They say: “If Parliament is forced to reject the Government’s deal, then we will once again have called the bluff of vested interest lobbyists and Whitehall scaremongers.”
There were signs last night that Mrs May was preparing to bow to demands to show Cabinet ministers the full legal advice by Mr Cox, on the backstop, before asking them to sign off on the proposals.
Conservative sources predicted that Mrs May would attempt to buy off ministers over the backstop by promising a future deal similar to the arrangement between Canada and Brussels that was favoured by Boris Johnson. However, one source insisted that with special arrangements in place for Northern Ireland the deal would only be for Britain, effectively splitting the union.
The letter stating that a “no deal” outcome was preferable to the current solution was signed by 12 association chairman including Anthony Owen, who chairs Jo Johnson’s Orpington party – putting him at odds with his MP.
The chairmen said Mrs May’s Chequers plan for a future relationship with the EU already amounted to a “significant blow” to the country’s sovereignty, and warned that the backstop proposals could go further by seeing the UK agree to abide by a series of EU regulations.
“Letting the EU dictate how our companies are run would amount to total capitulation,” they state, in a letter organised by the Stand Up 4 Brexit campaign group.
A Downing Street source said: “We should aim to conclude the Withdrawal Agreement as soon as possible but we will not do this at any cost.
“There are a number of issues that need to be worked through on the Northern Ireland backstop and these are the most difficult.
“They include ensuring that, if it is ever needed, it is not permanent and there is a mechanism to ensure the UK could not be held in the arrangement indefinitely.”
‘Letting EU dictate how companies are run would amount to total capitulation’
Theresa May faces a Brexit backstop battle
Jo Johnson, right, the Conservative MP who resigned as transport minister yesterday and called for a second Brexit referendum, leaves Broadcasting House with Stanley Johnson, his father