Tory MPs who campaigned for Brexit have urged colleagues not to publicly criticise Theresa May for agreeing to pay up to £50 billion to cut ties with the European Union, despite simmering anger on the back benches about the so-called divorce bill.
The Eurosceptic Tories, who form a powerful bloc that has profoundly influenced May’s approach to withdrawing from the EU, were blindsided by the reports on Tuesday and sought urgent assurances from 10 Downing Street and government ministers yesterday.
BuzzFeed News understands that a flurry of private conversations took place between the MPs after the reports emerged on Tuesday night that carried on through yesterday. Some Tory MPs told colleagues they were horrified at the prospect of such a large payment.
Some even complained to the Tory whips, warning that they could not support the government if it agreed to a payment of that level. They fear voters would regard the Tories as having betrayed the referendum result and punish the party at the next election.
The Eurosceptic Tories coordinate their activities through a body known as the European Research Group, which evolved from the Leave campaign. Founded by the Brexit minister Steve Baker, their members include Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, Nadine Dorries, and Bernard Jenkin.
Tightly disciplined and media-savvy, the ERG MPs constitute the most powerful bloc in the Conservative party and have the numbers to end May’s leadership if they decide to move against her – a factor that has heavily influenced 10 Downing Street’s Brexit strategy to date. The prospect of a Eurosceptic rebellion is one of the major factors in her decision to pursue a “hard” break from the EU, outside the single market and customs union, say analysts and party insiders.
Despite the anger of some members about the £50 billion exit payment yesterday, senior figures in the group moved quickly to quash any hint of a rebellion against the government, urging colleagues to give May time to negotiate a withdrawal deal and focus on their ultimate objective – for Britain to leave.
10 Downing Street held private conversations with senior representatives of the group on Wednesday in which they downplayed the reports, BuzzFeed News understands.
While some Tory Brexiteers worry that voters will recoil at the prospect of such a large payment, for many the money has never really been a “red line” in the Brexit process, members of the group told BuzzFeed News.
Some in the group take a more nuanced and pragmatic view of the payment, according to people familiar with their private discussions, seeing even a multibillion-pound payment as one of several compromises Britain has to accept to get to their ultimate goal of leaving the EU. They see the divorce bill as a price worth paying if it means Europe agrees to move the talks to the next stage – and results in Britain getting a comprehensive free-trade deal after it leaves the union in 2019.
Significantly, Duncan Smith made several appearances in the media and House of Commons on Wednesday in which he indicated support for May’s government, arguing that a £50 billion divorce payment would be trivial compared to the billions the UK would save in the long run by leaving the union.
As those MPs see it, according to several members of the group, the issues around the bill relate not to whether Britain should pay, but the timing and political packaging of it. A misstep, they say, would be allowing the payment to be framed as Britain succumbing to Brussels’ demands rather than as part of a wider deal in the UK’s best interests.
There is nevertheless a strong feeling among those backbenchers that May has now been sufficiently generous and reasonable. It is now up to Europe to respond by agreeing to move to a new phase of negotiations – and Britain should be willing to walk away from the talks if it doesn’t, they argue.
Even those who urged their colleagues to remain loyal to the government made it clear they would not support a divorce payment if it comes without an agreement from the other European states on trade.
For months the UK government has been adamant it would not agree to a £50 billion Brexit divorce bill. Brexit secretary David Davis called the figure "rubbish", "nonsense", and "completely wrong". Downing Street officials strongly disputed the bill would be £50 billion when BuzzFeed News reported this figure in June.
But on Tuesday, the Telegraph and the Financial Times reported that the UK had indicated it will pay around £50 billion to leave the EU. While senior officials from two European governments cautioned that nothing had yet been agreed in writing, they told BuzzFeed News the signs coming from London are positive.
It is not the first time Britain has appeared to concede to the EU's terms since the Brexit process began.
In May, Davis promised "the row of the summer" about the sequencing of the negotiations – but soon agreed to the EU's preferred timing. Officials and analysts are divided about the extent to which this has been part of a negotiating strategy by the UK, or whether it changed its position after coming up against the harsh reality of a negotiation where Brussels holds a stronger hand.
Either way, for the other 27 EU states, the exit bill was never up for negotiation. In their view, the divorce bill is a matter of the UK honouring financial commitments it made while a member of the EU. Michel Barnier, Europe’s head chief negotiator, has made this point repeatedly.
With this in mind, the choice facing the UK was straightforward: accept the EU’s position or crash out without a deal, which some analysts warn would be economically catastrophic.
By putting off the concession until now, Britain has left less time to figure out far more technically complicated issues, such as how to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and to negotiate a trade deal with the EU.
Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, told BuzzFeed News the UK could be leaving things to the last minute so potential Tory rebels are left with no choice but to approve the negotiated deal or risk bringing down the government and paving the way for Labour's Jeremy Corbyn to take over.
On the continent, Britain’s track record in talks so far is seen not so much as a strategy, but as them moving on positions they feel have been inevitable.
The challenge for the UK is that, if negotiations move to the next stage at all, the choices the government will face are on matters far more consequential to the country’s future – and they will put tremendous pressure on the red lines Theresa May has drawn for herself.
For starters, nobody has yet come up with an actual solution on how to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland – a country in the EU, where goods and people move freely – and Northern Ireland.
The prime minister has also said the UK will leave the EU's single market and customs union so that it can negotiate comprehensive trade deals with countries outside the union. She insists that the free movement of people and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over UK law will come to an end.
In a key speech in Florence in September, May ruled out membership of the European Economic Area – a potential "soft" compromise known as the so-called Norway model, which has been advocated by some experts – because it’s incompatible with her red lines.
At the same time, the prime minister said a Canadian-style free trade agreement would represent a significant restriction on market access compared to what Britain enjoys today. She insisted Britain was pursuing a bespoke free trade deal that would allow frictionless trade to continue after the UK leaves the union.
But the other 27 member states are unwilling to agree to anything that would compromise the key principles of the single market: freedom of movement of people, goods, services, and capital.
So, in other words, if Britain wants a deal that preserves aspects of the single market, it will have to continue to abide by the full set of the EU's terms. Europe has shown no sign of budging from this position.