One of the biggest Conservative donors has accused senior Tory figures of acting like political “jihadis” as the party tears itself apart over its approach to EU withdrawal.
In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Alexander Temerko warned Tory MPs that he and other backers will not accept the party seeking a catastrophic no-deal Brexit.
He said there is a group of influential Conservative figures ready to launch a major drive for a new general election if there is an attempt to cross the “red line” and leave with no deal.
The businessman, who has given close to £1m to the party in recent years, called on those on both the Leave and Remain sides of the debate in the party to get behind the prime minister’s Chequers deal as the only viable solution to the question Britain must answer within the next few months.
In a hard-hitting interview he also said that Ms May should accept the EU’s proposals on the Irish border in return for a guarantee of the UK’s integrity and repeated his view that the prime minister should step down after Brexit. Mr Temerko also vowed that Boris Johnson would never have his support again unless he returned to the political centre-ground.
It comes as Ms May prepares to make a critical speech at a party conference fraught with divisions over Brexit, and amid speculation of a pending leadership challenge from Mr Johnson.
Mr Temerko said the party had split into three groups – those backing a hard Brexit, those clinging to Remain and the pragmatic middle.
The businessman, who made his name in the energy market, said those on either wing of the Brexit debate are acting like “jihadis” and “fanatics”.
He said: “You know what Winston Churchill said about political fanatics? He said they are people who can’t change their mind and won’t change the subject.”
Mr Temerko, a British citizen, argued that there are two “powerful groups” on either side of the party – the Brexiteers who believe democracy will not be fulfilled without a hard Brexit, and those who those on the other side who believe Brexit cannot happen without “massive damage for ordinary people and business.” He added: “Then there is the centre ground who really understand that this is not an easy process.”
He compared Brexit to trying to achieve home rule in Ireland pointing out that many “brilliant leaders” had failed to find a quick solution.
The businessman said: “This is also not an easy process, we need to take time, maybe split the process, maybe first leave politically and then try and gradually with the economy. The worst scenario is leaving without a deal. I don’t give blanket support to Chequers, but I do support it. I can see a lot of weaknesses with the process, one of the biggest problems is the Irish border, but we need to find a compromise.”
The donor said that Brexiteers and the government had to accept the inclusion of the Irish “backstop” as proposed by the EU.
But in return he said the prime minister should seek a section in the withdrawal agreement that guarantees the territorial integrity of the UK – specifically it would forbid the EU from using the agreement to seek a united Ireland. Whatever the solution that may be found, he said that a no-deal Brexit must not be an option that is countenanced.
He said: “For me one of the top donors in the party, there is one red line. If as we approach the first day after Brexit, if we are leaving without a deal, I will very actively be pushing for a new election.
“My position and the position of my friends within the party, will be to actively push for a new election.”
Asked how, he said: “There are many ways we can do it, I don’t know if it would be successful, but the general situation is that we actively push for a new election because that is better than no deal.”
The businessman has handed some £180,000 to the party since Ms May took office, but has already said that he believes Ms May should leave Downing Street after Brexit.
Speaking on the opening day of Conservative conference, he said Ms May would likely go at the end of the transition period latest, but did not yet know who he could back as her successor.
Having backed Mr Johnson before his shock exit from the 2016 leadership contest, he said: “At the time I persuaded a number of people to join his campaign, said that he is a good salesman and the right person, very decisive, very dynamic. I was right at that time.
“But today he is not he right person. He is more divisive. I would say to him Boris, come back to the centre ground – that is your chance.
“If you want to lead the party, come back to the party and leave the Brexit jihadis.”
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