Nineteen Remain-supporting Tory MPs have written to Theresa May condemning their Brexiteer colleagues as “highly irresponsible” for urging her to walk away from the negotiating table, BuzzFeed News has learned.
Three former cabinet ministers – Nicky Morgan, Dominic Grieve, and Stephen Crabb – and four select committee chairs are among the Tory backbenchers who signed a letter to May on Wednesday, urging her to ignore Eurosceptics such as Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees-Mogg who are pushing for a much tougher stance in the Brexit talks.
It came after several prominent Brexiteers used May’s weekly appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions to ratchet up the pressure on the prime minister over a series of concessions in the last 48 hours that they see as her giving in too easily to Brussels.
On Tuesday night, BuzzFeed News reported that Tory MPs who want a softer Brexit believe the furore over the Northern Irish border this week has changed the terms of the debate and opened an opportunity for them to press for closer alignment with the EU after Britain leaves.
In their letter, the Tory moderates urged May not to be swayed by the growing pressure from their colleagues to entertain a “no deal” scenario.
“In particular it is highly irresponsible to seek to dictate terms which could lead to the UK walking away from these negotiations,” the 19 MPs wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by BuzzFeed News.
If the UK crashes out without a deal, it will, they warned May, “lead to great uncertainty for EU citizens living here and UK citizens living in the EU, higher costs and reduced choice for consumers, disruption at our ports and borders and grave questions about how cross-border contracts are to be fulfilled.”
The backbenchers pledged their support for May and urged her to take her time to get right the “most important [negotiations] in the UK’s modern history” and to secure a deal that “puts the interests of the UK economy and household finances first”.
In addition to the former cabinet ministers, the signatories include Anna Soubry, the former business minister; Sarah Wollaston, chair of the health select committee; Bob Neill, who chairs the justice committee; the former solicitor general Oliver Heald; former culture minister Ed Vaizey; former justice minister Jonathan Djanogly; and Johnny Mercer, one of the party’s rising stars.
May is running out of time to agree terms that would convince the other 27 EU member states to allow the Brexit negotiations to progress to the next phase, which is vital if the UK is to secure a favourable future relationship with the union before it leaves in March 2019. On Monday, an expected agreement was scuppered at the last minute by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which objected to the wording of a compromise on the Irish border.
For the DUP, the sticking point is the Irish government’s insistence that Northern Ireland retain some form of regulatory alignment with the EU after Brexit, which the DUP worries could lead to Northern Ireland having different arrangements than the rest of the UK. May was close to making such an agreement in Brussels on Monday before a dramatic eleventh-hour phone call with the DUP leader Arlene Foster.
Tory Brexiteers are also angry about the proposed agreement. In their view, the UK’s ability to independently strike free-trade deals will be impeded if it retains the same regulations as the EU after leaving the union.
While May tries to bring her parliamentary partners back on side, the dispute within her own ranks is escalating.
Influential backbenchers from rival Tory factions have stepped up their lobbying of 10 Downing Street since the DUP’s surprise intervention, pushing contradictory visions for the Brexit negotiations and the UK’s future relationship with the EU that puts May in a seemingly impossible political position.
In the Commons on Wednesday, several senior Leavers used Prime Minister’s Questions to remind May of their “red lines”.
Peter Bone asked May whether the UK is still on track to deliver the freedom that last year’s referendum promised, adding: “If we have a problem would it help if I came over to Brussels to help sort them out?”
Bernard Jenkin told the prime minister the UK won’t be able to do free trade deals with countries like the US, Canada, and Australia if it remains “shackled” to European regulations. Jacob Rees-Mogg was most cutting, telling May she should “apply a new coat of paint to her red lines because I fear on Monday they were beginning to look a little pink”.
The three MPs are part of a caucus of more than 60 committed Leavers who have fought a highly disciplined parliamentary ground war which has profoundly influenced 10 Downing Street’s approach to Brexit. They advocate a “hard” withdrawal under which Britain will pull out of the single market and customs union, impose strict immigration controls and pursue new trading arrangements with countries outside the EU.
They say Britain should be taking a tougher stance in the negotiations than it has been so far, and be willing to walk out. Leaving the EU without a deal will be far less costly than analysts forecast, they argue.
Read the Tory Remainers' letter in full:
Dear Prime Minister,
As the important December EU Council approaches we want to state our support for your hard work to ensure the elements of phase 1 of the Article 50 negotiations can be agreed so that the UK and EU can move on to phase 2.
You have always made it clear that you want a ‘deep and special partnership’ with the EU after March 2019 and that you want there to be a deal with the EU which reflects that partnership. We whole-heartedly agree with you on this. Such a deal is essential if we are to bring people from different sides of the EU Referendum vote together and show that the Conservative Party’s eyes are fixed firmly on the future and on securing a deal that puts the interests of the UK economy and household finances first.
You made it clear in your Florence speech that the UK should pay its outstanding liabilities and those most involved in the negotiations will be best placed to decide on what further sums are necessary to secure the ongoing partnership you rightly seek.
We know that you want to provide as much clarity about their future in the UK to the 3 million EU citizens living here and we know that you and your negotiating team are highly aware of and will be very mindful of the political and practical difficulties around the Irish border.
We also wish to make it clear that we are disappointed that, yet again, some MPs and others seek to impose their own conditions on these negotiations. In particular it is highly irresponsible to seek to dictate terms which could lead to the UK walking away from these negotiations.
Those who say that if such an outcome happens the UK will ‘revert to World Trade Organisation’ rules deliberately make it sound as if this is some status quo which the UK simply opts to adopt. They miss the many business and other voices who have made it clear that a ‘no deal’ post March 2019 scenario would lead to great uncertainty for EU citizens living here and UK citizens living in the EU, higher costs and reduced choice for consumers, disruption at our ports and borders and grave questions about how cross-border contracts are to be fulfilled.
The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU has said that the Article 50 negotiations are the most important in the UK’s modern history. We agree and urge you to take whatever time is necessary to get the next stage of the UK’s relationship with the EU right.
With every good wish for your success.
Alex Spence is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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