Theresa May is attempting to placate a growing rebellion over her plans for Brexit as 63 Tory Eurosceptics issued a major new challenge to her authority and a Government aide said her proposals could cause Leave voters to “lose faith in our democracy”.
The Prime Minister’s advisers are attempting to craft new language for the Brexit withdrawal agreement amid signs the Cabinet will otherwise refuse to agree to her proposals for a “backstop” plan that would “temporarily” keep the UK in the EU’s customs union.
On Saturday night Brexiteer MPs sought to dispel claims by allies of Mrs May that they could be railroaded in the Commons with the help of rebel Labour votes.
In a highly unusual show of strength, a letter attacking the Government over its Brexit forecasts was signed by 63 Conservative MPs, including David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chairman of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic backbenchers, and Steve Baker, the former Brexit minister.
Separately, writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, a pro-Leave MP who is parliamentary private secretary at the Department for Education, said remaining in a “temporary customs arrangement” after the end of the transition period in December 2020 “means simply delaying Brexit and causing the 17.4 million people who voted for it to lose faith in our democracy, and in our democratic and legal institutions”.
Mrs May is attempting to fend off possible resignations from all levels of the Government over a proposed backstop agreement with the EU, which would come into force if alternate arrangements were not reached in relation to the Irish border.
She is separately facing a battle to drive through her Chequers blueprint for a future relationship with the EU in the face of a tide of opposition from backbenchers.
Eurosceptics, including Boris Johnson and Mr Davis, want Mrs May to tear up the Chequers plan, and the proposed backstop, and instead strike a free trade deal based on the agreement between the EU and Canada, using technology to help solve the problem of the border.
“If she sends up leaving us in an indefinite backstop she’ll have a landslide [of resignations] against her and it’s over,” one senior Brexiteer said.
Brexiteers have insisted that any backstop arrangement must come with a specific end date to avoid the UK becoming permanently locked into the “temporary customs arrangement” on offer. But Cabinet ministers briefed on the latest proposals on Thursday were told Brussels refused to accept such an end date on the basis that it could leave the border without any solution to keep trade flowing after such a date.
Senior ministers have indicated this weekend that they could support a backstop that included a specific mechanism for the UK to withdraw, without relying on Brussels for permission to do so.
A source close to one pro-Leave Cabinet minister said: “Based on conversations this weekend there appears to be a glimmer of hope.”
Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Ms Trevelyan, the MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, states: “The idea of remaining in the customs union – even if it is called a ‘temporary customs arrangement’ – after the end of the transition period, into the 2020s, means simply delaying Brexit and causing the 17.4 million people who voted for it to lose faith in our democracy, and in our democratic and legal institutions. I fear that we would be in a permanent temporary customs union over which we had no control of the escape mechanism.”
The letter from Tory backbenchers, organised by the Economists for Free Trade group of Eurosceptic economists and Mr Baker, blames the Government for leaking negative Brexit forecasting and insists that Mr Hammond should release the modelling it uses.
The letter was also signed by Conservative donors including Sir David Ord, the managing director of the Bristol Port Company, and leading businessmen including Sir Rocco Forte, the hotelier.
A senior government source said it was “baldly ridiculous” to suggest ministers sanctioned the leak of downbeat forecasts in February: “It is simply not true.”
The new analysis by Open Europe concludes that a no-deal withdrawal from the EU would “not be ideal and would bring some material costs. However, it would be a relatively mild negative economic event”.
It states: “Our model suggests that a No Deal Brexit would mean the UK economy continuing to grow but with an effect equivalent to an average annual drag of -0.17 per cent on real GDP growth over the 13 years up to 2030. This could be reduced to an average reduction in growth of -0.04 per cent a year if the Government deploys maximum mitigation measures in the form of unilateral trade liberalisation. The economic impact of an exit on so-called WTO terms is, over a 13-year period, small.”
Lord Wolfson states: “Disruption at our ports is the single biggest threat Brexit poses to our economy. It is mitigable and government should be tackling this challenge with vigour. There is a superstitious reluctance to earnestly prepare for no deal.”
A Downing Street source said: “This Government’s position is the future customs agreement needs to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest. The Prime Minister would never agree to a deal which could trap the UK in a backstop permanently.”
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