Battle lines drawn in Tory civil war as former Brexit minister warns May of 'catastrophic split'

At least 80 Tory MPs are said to be ready to vote against the Chequers plan

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Monday 10 September 2018 11:31 BST
Conservative Steve Baker says up to 80 MPs could vote against chequers

A senior Eurosceptic Tory MP has warned Theresa May she has until the Conservatives’ annual conference later this month to drop her Chequers plan or face a “catastrophic split” in the party.

Steve Baker, a former Brexit minister, said Ms May faced ”a massive problem” because Tory party members do not support her Brexit blueprint.

He called the plan “not acceptable” and claimed the lack of parliamentary support for it would undermine the UK’s position in negotiations with the EU.

Mr Baker, a senior figure in the European Research Group (ERG) of Tory Brexiteers, quit the government in July in protest at the Chequers plan, which would see the UK continue to follow EU rules on the trade of goods.

The ERG is demanding Ms May ditch her proposals and instead seek to negotiate a Canada-style free trade deal with the EU.

The row over the terms of Brexit is set to dominate the agenda when the Tories gather in Birmingham for their annual conference from 30 September.

With just 200 days to go until Britain leaves the EU, Mr Baker, a former chairman of the ERG, said Ms May would be undermined in negotiations if she pushes ahead with proposals she is unlikely to get through Parliament.

At least 80 Tory MPs are said to be ready to vote against the Chequers plan, which was agreed by ministers at the prime minister’s country residence in July.

The Wycombe MP said: “When negotiating, the prime minister needs to demonstrate her intent and also her power to deliver.

“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.”

It is “fanciful” to believe Ms May will be able to persuade Parliament to vote for the Chequers proposals, he added..

Mr Baker insisted he did not want a change in the Conservative leadership, saying Brexiteers “do not want to be in a position of conflict with our own prime minister”.

“Time is running awfully short for anyone who thinks a leadership contest and a general election is a good idea,” he said.

However, his warning will be seen as a sign that Tory Eurosceptics are growing increasingly impatient with Ms May as she continues to insist her plan is the only alternative to a no-deal Brexit.

It came as Tory divisions deepened following Boris Johnson’s accusation that the prime minister had “wrapped a suicide belt” around Britain.

Acknowledging the prospect of a split, Mr Baker said he was “gravely concerned” for the future of the Conservatives if Ms May pushes ahead with her plan, which he described as “not acceptable”.

He said: “We are reaching the point now where it is extremely difficult to see how we can rescue the Conservative Party from a catastrophic split if the Chequers proposals are carried forward.”

“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.

“I am gravely concerned because I recognise that the Labour opposition represents a severe danger to our security and our prosperity.”

The ERG is planning to publish its own proposals for Brexit but has decided to delay them in order to continue working on a suggestion for how to tackle the Northern Ireland border issue, which has proved to be a major sticking point during negotiations between the UK and EU.

Mr Baker said: “What Eurosceptics want is basically the deal which the EU has offered to us. The prison in which we are being held is the border issue in Ireland.

“Because of the way the prime minister has worked through these issues, she has ended up putting forward the Chequers proposal which effectively leaves us half in, half out.

“We would be subject to EU interests which we couldn’t control in all those areas where Chequers meant we had made this upfront decision to commit ourselves to whatever law the EU has given us. It is not acceptable.”

His comments came as the dividing lines in a potential Tory leadership battle became clearer during a bitter row over comments about Ms May made by Mr Johnson, who is widely considered to be plotting to replace her.

As speculation about a possible leadership challenge mounts, the former foreign secretary claimed the prime minister’s Brexit strategy had “wrapped a suicide belt around the British constitution”.

His comments were described as “disgusting” and “outrageous” by two ministers who worked with him in the Foreign Office.

One of them, Sir Alan Duncan, threatened to end Mr Johnson’s career over the matter, saying: “For Boris to say the PM’s view is like that of a suicide bomber is too much. This marks one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics.

“I’m sorry, but this is the political end of Boris Johnson. If it isn’t now, I will make sure it is later.”

However, other Tories leapt to the former foreign secretary’s defence, and Richmond Park MP Zac Goldsmith accused Sir Alan of lacking “principles”.

Additional reporting by PA

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