Brexit: Tory truce crumbles as Theresa May accused of ‘stupid mistake’ in EU talks by leading Eurosceptic

The comments from Steve Baker MP marked the end of a period of detente that helped Ms May to win a Commons vote on Tuesday

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Wednesday 30 January 2019 19:15
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May vows to renegotiate Brexit agreement with EU after Commons vote

Theresa May has been accused of already making a “stupid mistake” as she tries to go into a new round of Brexit negotiations with the EU.

The flimsy Conservative truce achieved in a key vote on Tuesday fell apart in less than 24 hours when leading Eurosceptic MP Steve Baker attacked the prime minister’s negotiating team.

He said Ms May should have included Britain’s leading trade negotiator Crawford Falconer, with Brexiteers doubtful that the UK’s current civil service lead Olly Robbins would take the best approach.

It came as reports emerged that Remain-backing ministers were once again pressuring the prime minister to commit to a permanent customs union as a way of renegotiating the current withdrawal agreement to remove the Irish backstop.

Ms May continued to have meetings with other parliamentarians, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, as she prepared to head back to Brussels, probably next week, in a bid to secure changes to the withdrawal deal she previously sealed with the EU.

On Tuesday night the Brexit-backing European Research Group agreed to support a motion that gave Ms May a mandate to go back to the EU in a bid to replace the backstop with “alternative arrangements”.

But Mr Baker, deputy chair of the group, told a committee of MPs on Wednesday that Mr Falconer should be involved in the new round of talks.

The former minister said: “My experience in government ... tells me that our chief trade negotiation adviser, Crawford Falconer, has been cut out of our chief trade negotiation. And that is a stupid mistake.

“We have great experts in government on trade policy, Julian Braithwaite ... and Crawford Falconer, people with great expertise who should be intimately involved with our EU trade negotiations and they are not, and it is crazy.”

Outside the meeting he said their exclusion was a “mistake which should be rectified now”.

It echoed calls from former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith who has said Ms May should organise a “politically led” team, including Mr Falconer, to head back to Brussels.

Mr Robbins, meanwhile, has drawn the ire of a large number of Brexiteers over his handling of negotiations with Michel Barnier and his team.

But speaking to reporters after prime minister’s questions, Ms May’s spokesman said: “In terms of the civil service side, the team remains the same.

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“The civil service team, which is led by Olly Robbins, remains the same.”

Reports emerged that some Remain-backing ministers suggested the UK might hope to have the Irish backstop – hated by many Tory MPs – removed from the withdrawal agreement if the country committed to a permanent customs union with the EU.

The backstop comes into play if the UK has not secured a new trade deal with the EU by December 2020, in a bid to prevent a hard border in Ireland, but also potentially locking the UK into an indefinite customs union.

It has previously been backed by Ms May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell, but would threaten a major split in the Conservative Party because Brexiteers, including those in cabinet, argue it would prevent the UK striking trade deals with other countries.

No 10 aides played down the idea that Ms May would be heading to Brussels to start new talks this week, with any trip likely to take place next week after she has had further meetings in the UK.

Mr Corbyn said he had held “serious” talks with the prime minister on Wednesday afternoon in which he “set out the Labour case for a comprehensive customs union with the European Union”.

But speaking to reporters in his parliamentary office after the meeting, he warned that he had suspicions about the government’s motives in holding the meetings with opposition parliamentarians.

The Labour leader said: “The whole process looks like it’s running down the clock by saying, well, it’s either the problems and the difficulties of no deal or support a deal that’s already been rejected by the House of Commons.

“I’m suspicious that there is a programme of running down the clock here.”

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