In public, government ministers and hardline Brexiteers on the Alternative Arrangements Working Group insist their snappily titled “Malthouse Compromise” seeking changes to Theresa May’s Brexit deal is being “taken seriously”.
In private, the talks are in trouble. BuzzFeed News can reveal that the AAWG descended into acrimony on Wednesday amid a cancelled trip to Northern Ireland, distrust between Brexiteers and ministers, complaints that the workings of the group breach the civil service code, and the beginning of what threatens to become an existential split within the crucial European Research Group of Brexiteer MPs.
The AAWG was scheduled to head to Northern Ireland on Wednesday for a trip during which they were slated to meet with local businesses and politicians, travel to the Irish border, and be briefed by intelligence officials on the security implications of Brexit.
As late as Tuesday afternoon the visit was still due to take place, but following a series of panicked phone and text conversations between senior Brexiteer MPs due to board the plane to Belfast, it was called off.
One MP who had given up his seat at the Conservatives’ lavish annual Black and White Ball fundraiser on Tuesday night so he could be on the trip was left with an empty diary.
Three senior members of the ERG told BuzzFeed News that the trip was called off after Brexiteers on the AAWG decided they were being stitched up by Downing Street.
One said the agenda organised by the government was designed to expose hardline Brexiteers including Steve Baker, Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers to meetings in which various Northern Irish representatives would warn them against the dangers of a no-deal Brexit.
Concerns were raised that private discussions with ERG hardliners and Northern Irish farmers and businesses and UK intelligence officials about the implications of a no-deal Brexit would be briefed to the press by Number 10.
A second ERG member confirmed these fears were raised within the group on Monday, telling BuzzFeed News that distrust between the Brexiteers and the government led to the trip being called off. “It was a trap,” they said.
A third source described the proposed agenda as “Project O’Fear”.
With the Northern Ireland trip off, Brexiteers backing the Malthouse Compromise stayed in London for further meetings with Brexit secretary Steve Barclay and a briefing with journalists in the House of Commons.
Following the prime minister’s admission on Tuesday that she would not seek to remove the controversial backstop insurance policy from the withdrawal agreement, an ERG figure said: "The thing about the PM is she'll stick with the same line until something else is firmly on the table."
But internally the ERG has become split on what, if any, concessions it would be willing to accept on the backstop.
A faction of the group has hardened its position over the last few days. While as recently as last week senior Brexiteers were indicating they would endorse a Brexit deal that included a time limit to the backstop, this week prominent ERG members such as Simon Clarke and Nadine Dorries indicated that a time limit would not be enough to secure their support.
This faction of increasing hardliners is said to be led by Baker, the ERG’s deputy chair, who wants the backstop removed entirely. Previously it had been thought the number of hardliners unwilling to vote for any deal with a backstop was around two dozen; now a source familiar with the ERG says it is around double that.
Other senior Brexiteers in the group want to compromise and accept the backstop if a legally binding time limit is added to the withdrawal agreement. Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab has repeatedly called for a “finite” time limit to the backstop.
This faction believes that unless the ERG shows its willingness to unite around a less extreme position, the EU and the PM will not be convinced there is a Commons majority for a deal to be found with Brexiteer votes, pushing the UK towards a softer Brexit with permanent customs union membership.
“I do think the group will split,” one Brexiteer source told BuzzFeed News, predicting dozens of ERG MPs would end up compromising. “People like Bernard Jenkin will end up voting for the deal. It’s like Che Guevara going to live in a retirement home in Florida."
The source said the AAWG and the Malthouse Compromise were a “sticking plaster” for the ERG split: “It is ironic that something supposed to overcome division within the Conservative Party has caused further division."
A third potential problem for the AAWG emerged on Wednesday when cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill was urged by Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable to investigate whether the group breached civil service rules on officials working with backbench MPs.
Labour’s former cabinet office spokesperson Stewart Wood told BuzzFeed News: “The establishment of the AAWG by the prime minister clearly breaks rules. The Civil Service Code and the Cabinet Manual are crystal clear that civil servants cannot be asked to serve party political purposes. Yet a group of solely Conservative Party backbench MPs being provided with support from the civil service is exactly what these rules prohibit. The government needs to account for why they are so flagrantly breaking established rules about the civil service works, in pursuit of a peace deal on Brexit within their own party.”
A government spokesperson said: “These discussions are routine Ministerial meetings which as normal require support from the Civil Service.”