Remain-backing Tories see the sudden unravelling of the Brexit talks on Monday as as a new glimmer of hope to shift May's "hard" approach to Brexit, several MPs have told BuzzFeed News.
The main pro-Remain rump, led by Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry, and Dominic Grieve, has to date had no success in convincing May that Britain should remain in the single market and customs union after leaving the EU.
But they now believe the deadlock over the Irish border has given them a chance to reopen that debate, and are discussing a renewed lobbying push, the MPs said.
The party is set for a brutal public row among its senior figures as the Brexit pressure mounts. Morgan this evening dismissed Brexiter MP Iain Duncan Smith's approach to the Irish border question as "madness".
To complicate matters, in Scotland, another group of Conservatives led by Ruth Davidson have plotted their own Brexit strategy.
According to one Tory, the breakdown over the Irish border will change the dynamics of the debate and underline the case for a "soft" Brexit, in which Britain stays in the single market and customs union.
It is the only way, the MP argued, that May can satisfy the DUP's demands of avoiding a hard border without having separate arrangements for Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK, while at the same time meeting the Irish government's desire for regulations in Northern Ireland to be aligned with those of the EU.
It all puts May in an almost impossible political position, with only days left to convince the EU that sufficient progress has been made to move on to the next phase of negotiations.
However, at the same time, Leavers on the Tory back benches — the most powerful wing of the party — urged May to play hardball with Europe and Ireland, insisting she should walk away from the Brexit talks rather than agree to the Irish government's demand that Northern Ireland remain closely aligned to the EU.
The Tory Eurosceptics have so far been the biggest influence on 10 Downing Street's approach to Brexit.
However, in the last few months, they've appeared to be on the back foot as the UK made concessions to the EU that appeared to violate their "red lines", including seeking a transitional period after leaving and the payment of up to £50 billion to settle the UK's financial obligations. Publicly, they mostly remained loyal to May, although some of their members argued that it was time for the UK to walk away from the Brexit talks.
On Tuesday, Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader and one of the party's most prominent supporters of Brexit, ramped up the pressure. "I have made it pretty clear that I think we have reached the point where really this set of demands are demands too far," Duncan Smith told the BBC.
Morgan, the former education secretary, tweeted that his remarks were "madness".
Labour added to the pressure, calling on May to reconsider her policy on the single market and customs union in what appeared to be a significant U-turn by the opposition's own leadership.
Reversing May's stance on the single market and customs union would violate the Eurosceptics' hard red lines and would almost certainly trigger a leadership contest from the right of the party.
Labour nevertheless appears set to try to move her in that direction. Keir Starmer, the opposition's shadow Brexit spokesman, urged May to reconsider the policy during an urgent debate in the Commons on Tuesday.
Addressing the House, Starmer asked: “Will the prime minister now rethink her reckless red lines and put options such as the customs union and single market back on the table for negotiations?”
“If the price of the prime minister’s approach is the break-up of the Union and reopening a bitter divide in Northern Ireland, then the price is too high,” Starmer added.
The statement by the shadow Brexit secretary raised eyebrows in Westminster because Jeremy Corbyn earlier this year sacked three shadow cabinet ministers for voting to remain in the single market and customs union, on the grounds that Labour couldn’t be seen to be defying the 2016 referendum.
Ruth Cadbury, Andy Slaughter, and Catherine West were sacked in June.
Labour’s 2017 election manifesto pledged to retain the “benefits” of membership of the single market and customs union, without necessarily remaining a member. On Tuesday, one Labour MP who campaigned relentlessly for the opposition to adopt a pro-single market position, despite opposition from Corbyn, said the leadership now “seem very open to the idea” of staying in.
Ben Bradshaw, one of several Labour MPs who spoke in parliament today urging May to change her position after the latest setback, said Labour has changed its position and that the move is “very welcome”.
“The Labour party is increasingly united around this position,” Bradshaw said in a statement emailed to journalists on Tuesday afternoon.
A spokesperson for Corbyn confirmed that Starmer’s comments in the Commons was cleared with the party leadership. “There was shadow cabinet this morning,” the spokesperson said. “Everything we do with Brexit is very closely agreed.”
The parliamentary posturing ramped up as May’s government scrambled to save the Brexit talks.
Britain and the EU had been agonisingly close on Monday morning to agreeing a deal that would move the Brexit process to a vital new phase. But it was scuppered by the DUP at the eleventh hour because of objections to the wording.
The Northern Irish party has only 10 MPs but wields an outsize influence in Westminster because May's fragile government depends on them to pass legislation.
Arlene Foster, the DUP’s leader, said in an interview on Tuesday that her party got a “big shock” when it saw the final wording of the agreement on Monday. “Once we saw the text, we knew it was not going to be acceptable,” Foster told the Irish broadcaster RTE.
At issue is the extent to which Northern Ireland will be aligned to the Republic of Ireland, and the rest of the EU, after Brexit. The DUP, like other parties in the talks, says it won’t tolerate a hard border after Brexit, but won’t back any solution that in any way separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, such as putting the region into a special customs union with a border on the Irish sea.
Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, also made comments about the DUP’s intervention that were interpreted by some as a renewed push for soft Brexit.
Davidson — who opposed Brexit and is generally thought to favour a closer ongoing relationship with the EU than that proposed by May — said the entire UK should remain in regulatory alignment with the EU if that was the only way to have a frictionless border after Brexit.
But party sources told BuzzFeed News that Davidson isn’t coordinating with the Tory Remainers in Westminster, and that her intervention on Tuesday morning was primarily aimed at protecting the union rather than shifting May’s Brexit proposals.
They said that the party’s MPs, alongside Davidson and Scotland secretary David Mundell, are working as a defined group to prevent any deal that would jeopardise the “integrity of the United Kingdom”. It’s understood Davidson phoned May on Monday morning ahead of releasing her statement, and Mundell told the prime minister in cabinet that the Scottish Conservatives wouldn’t accept a deal which favoured one part of the UK.
One senior Scottish Conservative said: “Most of [the Scottish Tory MPs], in fact all of them, are unionists first. Anything that caused a problem with that or sent hares running for the Scottish government demanding they be treated as a quasi-independent nation brokering their own international agreements, they would be against that. As a caucus, their driving force is that they are unionists and anything that would seek to unsettle that is a bad thing.”
BuzzFeed News understands that the Scottish Conservative MP group has held several meetings with May’s de facto deputy Damian Green where they’ve expressed concerns over the devolved elements of the Brexit deal, and intend to hold more meetings about the greater detail of Scotland’s deal once phase two of the negotiations begins.
However, ultimately, the bloc will be prepared to vote against the government in the Commons should any kind endanger the union, according to MPs.
“You’ll be as aware as I am of the parliamentary arithmetic,” Stephen Kerr MP told BuzzFeed News. “It’s not just the Scottish Conservatives who feel strongly about this, I think there’s a widespread feeling in the parliamentary party that we don’t want to do anything that would put the integrity of the UK at risk.”
Asked if he thought the Scottish Tory bloc could vote against the government if they thought their proposals endangered the union, Kerr said: “Of course. I can imagine a scenario where any member of parliament would vote against their conscience. That’s not too radical a suggestion. We have the opportunity to vote according to our conscience and if you disagree with what the government is doing then you have to do what you think is right.”