A former junior Brexit minister has warned the UK prime minister that pressing ahead with her Chequers plan could see up to 80 Tory MPs voting against it, risking a “catastrophic split” in the party.
Steve Baker, who quit his role over May’s Brexit plans in July, is the former chair of the European Research Group (ERG) – a cohort of some 80 hard-Brexit-supporting Tory MPs who constantly posed difficulties for May.
If the ERG and their supporters voted against May’s deal, the fate of the government and any proposed Brexit legislation would have to rely on the support of Labour, as the PM would no longer command the necessary 320 votes in the 650-seat parliament. Her working majority, which relies on the support of the DUP, stood at just 13 following her 2017 election victory.
Baker told the Press Association that he was “gravely concerned” about the Tory party splitting in the event of May pressing ahead with her Chequers deal, which proposes close post-Brexit ties between the EU and the UK.
“If we come out of conference with her hoping to get Chequers through on the back of Labour votes, I think the EU negotiators would probably understand that if that were done, the Tory party would suffer the catastrophic split which thus far we have managed to avoid,” he said.
“It is absolutely no pleasure whatsoever to me to acknowledge that, but I look at the mood of colleagues and the mood of the Conservative Party in the country and I am gravely concerned for the future of our party.”
Despite Baker’s claims regarding the ERG’s strength, not all of its members are reportedly as keen to defy the PM. Financial Times journalist Jim Pickard suggests some would think twice before rebelling against May over such a major issue, fearing that it could trigger an unwanted general election.
Baker insisted that his warning was not a coded endorsement of a leadership challenge to May. There has been growing speculation in recent days that Baker’s fellow Brexiteer, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, is preparing a bid to topple the PM.
The ever-controversial Johnson caused a stir on Sunday when he described May’s Brexit plan as a “suicide vest” around the “British constitution” – the detonator for which was in Brussels’ hands – in a column for the Mail on Sunday. The UK does not have a constitution.
The graphic metaphor prompted a backlash from several Tory MPs, with Sir Alan Duncan, a former colleague of Johnson’s in the Foreign Office, claiming that it signaled “the political end of Boris Johnson. If it isn’t now, I will make sure it is later.”
A spokesman for the prime minister has said Chequers is the only Brexit plan on the table that would deliver on the will of the people while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. On Johnson’s incendiary comments, the PM wouldn’t give them “any further oxygen,” the spokesman said. Additionally, May will hold a “no-deal” cabinet meeting on Thursday, Reuters reports.
It comes as many news outlets are reporting that EU member states are preparing to give its Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, a new mandate to help finalize a deal with Britain. It would be seen as a welcome conciliatory move that could give May a much-needed boost after suffering savage attacks from Brexiteers at home.
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