Theresa May is risking a new Tory war over Europe after she wrenched open party divisions by signalling she backs a hard Brexit with controls on immigration at its core.
In her opening speech to the Conservative conference the Prime Minister unveiled a far tougher stance than she has previously taken on EU withdrawal, and even directly attacked those who want a compromise deal to allow the UK single market access.
Within hours several MPs and two former Cabinet ministers had rounded on the Prime Minister, while a senior Peer warned of a revolt in the Lords.
A group of around 80 pro-EU Tories also met at a fringe event vowing to be the “resistance” against what was branded the “total abandonment and total recklessness” of a hard Brexit.
Pro-EU MPs have been urging Ms May to do everything possible to preserve access to the single market to the greatest degree possible, with many arguing for full access.
But speaking to delegates, she claimed the MPs are looking at things the “wrong way”. She said she wanted a Brexit deal to include cooperation on law enforcement and counter-terrorism, to involve free trade and to give British companies the maximum freedom to operate in the single market.
Then she went on: “But let me be clear. We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.”
She then turned her fire on those calling for Parliament to have more involvement in the Brexit process, questioning their motives. She said: “[They] are not standing up for democracy, they’re trying to subvert it. They’re not trying to get Brexit right, they’re trying to kill it by delaying it. They are insulting the intelligence of the British people.”
Taking aim at those calling for a second referendum, she said: “Even now, some politicians – democratically elected politicians – say that the referendum isn’t valid, that we need to have a second vote.
“Others say they don’t like the result, and they’ll challenge any attempt to leave the European Union through the courts – oh, come on. The referendum result was clear. It was legitimate.”
Former health secretary Stephen Dorrell said focussing negotiations that were about economic policy on immigration would be an “odd” move. He went on: “It’s the wrong way to go about the negotiation to say that one objective be pursued to the detriment of others. To pursue a pure objective on immigration – that way lies madness.”
Ex-education secretary Nicky Morgan said: “At the moment it looks like it's more in favour of tackling immigration than the single market. Throwing access to the single market away because immigration is part of the negotiation would be a big mistake. It would damage the economy, and that damages all of us.”
At a fringe meeting shortly after the speech, Stroud MP Neil Carmichael told guests: “We would be reckless if we did not challenge some of the consequences of a hard, or harsh, Brexit. Because we have got to understand that, if it is a hard Brexit, it is also a harsh Brexit.
“We must avoid, at all costs, a Brexit that damages our economy, damages our capacity as a nation to perform capably in the future and actually damages Europe.”
Broxtowe MP Anna Soubry, a former minister and supporter of the Open Britain campaign, warned against the Government being “gung-ho”. She cautioned that Ms May risked millions of jobs if she handled the negotiations badly and stated that any Brexit deal will need the consent of Parliament.
Ms May gave her speech after announcing that she would trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, launching Brexit negotiations, by March 2017 and that the Government would simultaneously introduce a “Great Repeal Bill” to end the EU’s authority in the UK on day one of its departure.
But while Ms May is determined not to give Parliament a say on Article 50, the “Great Repeal Bill” will need to pass through both the Commons and the Lords, where most politicians oppose Brexit.
Insiders believe the Government may be able to whip the vote through the Commons, but in the Lords the Tories are already in a minority and even some Conservative Peers are unhappy.
One said: “There are people who are worried that if the Lords pushes back on this, it could be the end of the Lords.
"But the Lords has to be reformed anyway, it has to happen. There are far too many of us. So some of us don't see that as an impediment."
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