Measures to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland make a “complete nonsense of Brexit”, Theresa May has been told, as she faced a backbench backlash over her agreement on future relations between the UK and EU.
Several Tory MPs criticised the political declaration on post-Brexit relations agreed with Brussels, with many citing concerns over the customs backstop which keeps the UK in the customs union to prevent the return of a hard Irish border.
But the Prime Minister repeatedly insisted her deal meets the demands of Brexiteers.
Conservative former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said: “We should junk forthwith the backstop, upon which the future economic partnership - according to this political declaration - is to be based, and which makes a complete nonsense of Brexit.”
Mrs May said her deal delivers what Mr Johnson wants, telling him: “The future relationship we have set out in the political declaration ends free movement, ends sending vast sums of money to the European Union every year and ends the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the United Kingdom, and it enables us to hold an independent trade policy and to negotiate trade deals around the whole of the world.”
Tory former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers warned the EU would be “unlikely to agree” a future trading agreement with the UK as the backstop in the withdrawal agreement offered more favourable terms.
The Brexiteer said: “There are clearly parts of this document which are positive and which I welcome, my grave worry with it is that it’ll never come into effect anyway because the EU is unlikely to agree a new economic partnership with us because the withdrawal agreement locks us in to paying the £38 billion and also commits us to a backstop which has us obeying their rules and applying their customs rules without any say over them.”
And former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab said Mrs May’s backstop would do the opposite of the will of the people by giving control away.
He told the Commons: “The backstop ties the UK to the customs union and single market rules with no voice and an EU veto over our exit whilst paragraph 23 of the political declaration makes that the starting point for future relations to build on.
“The top reason people voted to leave the EU was to take back control over our laws. Isn’t it the regrettable but inescapable reality that this deal gives even more away?”
Remain supporting Tory MPs also added their voice to criticism of the backstop, including former attorney general Dominic Grieve.
He said: “The backstop is a constitutional anomaly of the first order because it makes the EU the guarantor of a bilateral treaty between ourselves and Ireland, of which the people have never been consulted.”
And former education secretary Justine Greening added: “I don’t believe this is a good deal for Britain,” and asked about a referendum if the vote on the deal was lost.
Tory Brexiteer Sir Bill Cash told Mrs May the Commons European scrutiny committee, which he chairs, would be holding an inquiry into “the Government’s handling and outcome of these negotiations”.
He said: “This declaration cannot be reconciled with the repeal of the 1972 act nor the referendum vote.”
Brexiteer and Tory former leader Iain Duncan Smith also added to the criticism, asking Mrs May to consider amending the Withdrawal Agreement “so that any arrangements we make strip out that backstop and leave us with that positive open border that we talked about”.
Former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson later warned that inclusion of the backstop meant “the horror of Northern Ireland being split off” from the UK remained.
Mrs May responded saying the backstop was not “automatic”, adding: “There are alternatives to the backstop and the United Kingdom can choose those alternatives, there are pros and cons in these and when the time comes obviously that choice will measure those pros and cons.”
DUP chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson called on the Prime Minister to dump the backstop and come forward with the alternatives set out in the political declaration instead.
Sir Jeffrey said his party agreed with Chancellor Philip Hammond, who had said he did not think the backstop would be good for the UK economy or its union.
He added: “If she wants to have the support of my party for the withdrawal agreement then we need to see an end to the backstop and those alternative arrangements put in place.”
Mrs May responded: “None of us want to see the backstop being used. The best way to ensure the backstop is not used is to get the future relationship into place.”
Tory former minister Mark Francois also said: “Prime Minister, why have you repeatedly made commitments at the despatch box and then done the opposite?”