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Brexit: John Major tears into Theresa May's strategy as 'grand folly' as she prepares for critical speech on EU

The former Conservative leader said the current PM’s policies are being dictated by ‘ultra Brexiteers’

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Wednesday 28 February 2018 19:04 GMT
John Major: British people have 'every right' to reverse Brexit in second referendum

Former Conservative leader John Major has launched a devastating attack on Theresa May’s approach to Brexit, just 48 hours before the Prime Minister sets out her plans for future relations with the EU.

In a significant intervention, Sir John tore into Ms May’s negotiating red lines as “bad politics” and “grand folly” dictated by “ultra Brexiteers”.

He demanded MPs be freed from the party whip and allowed to vote with their conscience on her final deal, and said Britain may need a second referendum to avoid years of damaging rows over Brexit.

His explosive speech sparked a ferocious backlash from Tories that back hard Brexit, with one saying his arguments were “grubbing around in the weeds”.

The surgically timed intervention comes as Ms May prepares to reveal the final text of her next big Brexit speech to the Cabinet, before meeting European Council president Donald Tusk in Downing Street on Thursday.

Sir John’s intervention also appears to have been choreographed with another speech from ex-prime minister Tony Blair in Brussels on Thursday, in which the ex-Labour leader will address European politicians on Brexit.

When the ex-Tory leader stood to make his speech on Wednesday, Ms May had already locked horns with Brussels negotiators who had in the morning published what she called an “unacceptable” draft withdrawal agreement.

Former Government trade official Sir Martin Donnelly: Brexit is like 'giving up a three-course meal for a packet of crisps'

Despite Ms May having repeatedly claimed she settled the withdrawal agreement last year, she argued in the Commons that a new draft had crossed her Brexit red lines.

This is not only grand folly. It’s also bad politics

John Major sums up Theresa May’s approach to Brexit

It was those very “red lines” that Sir John took aim at when he began talking in London minutes later, claiming they had “boxed” Ms May in.

He said: “They are so tilted to ultra-Brexit opinion, even the Cabinet cannot agree them – and a majority in both Houses of Parliament oppose them.

“If maintained in full, it will be impossible to reach a favourable trade outcome.”

He added: “This is not only grand folly. It’s also bad politics.”

Sir John then listed what he saw as Ms May’s negotiating disappointments, including the failure to secure simultaneous talks on withdrawal and trade last year which he branded “an immediate British retreat”.

His attack was given added prescience after the Government signalled that it would back down on a key negotiating position, by allowing EU citizens arriving in the UK during the transition period to gain settlement rights.

He then turned his fire on promises made during the referendum by people he called “ultra Brexiteers”– that the NHS would have more money, that the UK could remain in the single market and that a trade deal would be easy to get. All of which he said had been shown to be false.

The former prime minister took a particular swipe at Boris Johnson who had once said of the divorce bill that the EU could “whistle for their money”, with Sir John pointing out that “Europe didn’t even have to purse her lips before we agreed to pay £40bn”.

Turning to the future he said that there had to be an end to the bitterness and division caused by Brexit whatever the outcome, and argued that a further referendum may be the only way to do it.

In particular he demanded that all parties allow MPs to vote with their own minds rather than whipping them one way or another on the final deal.

In a key section he said: “By 2021, after the likely two-year transition, it will be five years since the 2016 referendum.

“The electorate will have changed. Some voters will have left us. Many new voters will be enfranchised. Others may have changed their mind.

“No one can truly know what ‘the will of the people’ may then be. So, let Parliament decide. Or put the issue back to the people.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg MP is leading the charge against Sir Johnfor the Tory Brexiteers (PA)

A Downing Street spokesman said: “The PM anticipates getting the right Brexit deal and anticipates MPs from across the House will support it.”

The Independent understands that the Government will whip the vote on the final deal, arguing that it is justified because it is party policy to deliver Brexit.

While Downing Street “respectfully disagreed” with Sir John’s analysis, other Tories were less restrained.

Jacob Rees-Mogg said it was clear Sir Johnwas attempting to reverse the result of the referendum with “cheap comments and propaganda”.

He said: “We had a democratic vote, the decision has been taken and what he is trying to do is overturn that.

“This isn’t a statesman-like speech. This is one of somebody grubbing around in the weeds for weak arguments. It is a very poor speech.”

Theresa May says 'no Prime Minister would ever agree' to EU’s proposal for Northern Ireland to remain aligned with the Republic after Brexit

Ms May’s planned intervention on Friday – in which she will set out her approach to securing future trading relations with the EU – will be put to the Cabinet for final approval on Thursday.

With major divisions in her top team yet to be resolved, the speech will probably leave many questions unanswered, but what has come out so far has already been dismissed by the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier as “illusory”.

After seeing the Cabinet, Ms May will receive Mr Tusk at No 10 for discussions about her approach, with the EU politician expected to address journalists afterwards.

Meanwhile, Mr Blair will tell an audience in Brussels that the EU must also “share the responsibility” for finding a way to stop Brexit by agreeing to tighten immigration controls.

Speaking in Brussels, the former Prime Minister will urge EU leaders to see the Leave vote as a “wake-up call” – arguing reform would help persuade the British public to change its mind.

Mr Blair will say Britain’s departure also “weakens Europe’s standing and power”, undermining the single market and creating “a competitive pole” across the English Channel.

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