Moderate Tories warn anti-EU 'purists' they could turn against Brexit if Theresa May's deal is torn down

Exclusive: Conservative MPs have told The Independent Brexiteers have miscalculated the situation

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Saturday 17 November 2018 20:05 GMT

Moderate Conservatives have warned they will push Britain towards tighter relations with the EU or even turn against Brexit altogether if “purists” in their party tear down Theresa May’s draft withdrawal deal.

A string of Tory MPs told The Independent that Eurosceptic colleagues who have begun a sustained push to bring down both Ms May and her Brexit plans, should not be mistaken that a no-deal exit risking the livelihoods of British people is obtainable.

The moderates say the only remaining option if Brexiteers block Ms May’s approach will mean being more closely bound to the single market or even revisiting the 2016 referendum result.

Their warning comes as the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservatives launched a coordinated campaign against the draft deal to be signed off at an EU summit next weekend, and pushed for a vote of no confidence in the prime minister.

Ms May is set to continue her media offensive defending the deal on Sunday with a live interview in the morning, but Eurosceptics have also been in force attacking it.

The pushback from Tory moderates began with pointed words from serving frontbencher Alistair Burt, who indicated that if Ms May’s plans fell, Brexiteers could not expect Remain-voting MPs to continue to go along with the result of the 2016 referendum regardless of the consequences.

He wrote on Twitter: “Be very clear. If an agreed deal on leaving between the Govt and the EU is voted down by purist Brexiteers, do not be surprised if consensus on accepting the result of the referendum by Remain-voting MPs breaks down.

“Parliament will not support no deal.”

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Another Conservative MP, who did not wish to be named, confirmed the view that support for Brexit on the Tory benches would weaken if Ms May’s deal falls in the Commons.

“Certainly many of us think that no Brexit, is better than no deal,” said the MP.

Ex-cabinet minister Nicky Morgan was among those who sent a direct message to Eurosceptic colleagues, telling The Independent: “If they tear down the agreement, a number of us will revisit having closer access to the single market and long-term membership of the customs union – that is where we might head, to the Norway option.

“Remain-voting MPs have gone along with a lot in the last two years. If this agreement goes down, it is not going to go the way of the hard Brexiteers.”

A senior Tory frontbencher who agrees with Mr Burt told The Independent that the European Research Group – leading Eurosceptic opposition to Ms May – should “better understand” the dynamic of parliament, that there is not a majority for a no-deal Brexit.

“They’re trying so hard to bring the deal down without thinking about what happens if they’re successful,” the individual said.

The idea that if the deal dies everyone is just going to say, ‘OK we give up let’s just go without a deal now and agree Canada later’, is pure fantasy

Senior Conservative frontbencher

“The idea that if the deal dies everyone is just going to say, ‘OK we give up let’s just go without a deal now and agree Canada later’, is pure fantasy.”

The moderates’ analysis is shared, in part at least, by No 10. In her statement on the steps of Downing Street, Ms May said that if her deal is not chosen it is possible there would be no Brexit.

One government insider told The Independent: “There is an irony that if the deal fails it could be through the actions of the ultras that we are delivered in to an even tighter relation to the customs union to the Norway option or whatever.

“In truth what we think is that there is no majority for anything in the commons at the moment – not for no deal, for EEA, or anything.

“So what we have to do between now and the meaningful vote is get enough people on side with the deal, we have to make sure that becomes a majority option.”

On Saturday, Tory Eurosceptics again took to the airwaves to attack the prime minister’s plan and predicted that there would soon be enough letters calling for her to resign to trigger a vote of no confidence, with party chairman Brandon Lewis saying the PM is “prepared for anything”.

Ms May will look to set out the next steps of the Brexit process in an interview with Sky’s Sophy Ridge, with other ministers scheduled to go on TV and radio backing her position.

But the ERG, choreographed by leading Brexiteer Steve Baker MP, has also launched a well-organised drive to shape public opinion about the deal, using WhatsApp and other means to stay in regular contact with journalists and ensure their message features prominently on news coverage.

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