As many as 40 hardcore Tory Brexiteers will resist attempts to coerce them into supporting a Brexit deal with Brussels based on Theresa May’s Chequer’s plan, a former minister has warned.
Steve Baker said he stood by his previous claim that 80 Conservatives would be prepared to oppose the Prime Minister if her deal with the EU kept Britain too closely aligned to it.
Mr Baker, a senior figure in the hardline Brexiteer European Research Group, told BBC Radio 4’s Today that he was expecting the Tory Whips to go to work on the rebels but that half of them would stand firm against her regardless.
He said that they “will not tolerate a half-in, half-out Brexit” after reports that Mrs May hopes to break the deadlock over the Irish border by keeping the EU’s present customs arrangements beyond when the transition period is due to end in December 2020.
If 40 Tories rebelled it would leave a Brexit deal at serious risk of failing to gain Parliamentary approval, with the Prime Minister needing Labour votes to get it through.
Mr Baker, a former Brexit minister, told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “I always try to be accurate on the numbers rather than have a bluff to be called. We are in a position where, as we roll forward, colleagues will not tolerate a half-in, half-out Brexit.
“I did a concrete canvas of colleagues when it was amendments to legislation, and came up with the number of nearly 80.
“Of course the Government are going to whip this vote extremely hard, but what I would say is that the whips would be doing incredibly well if they were to halve the numbers, and my estimate is that there are at least 40 colleagues who are not going to accept a half-in, half-out Chequers deal or indeed a backstop that leaves us in the internal market and the Customs Union, come what may.”
His comments came as the Government’s allies in the Democratic Unionist Party headed to Brussels for their own talks with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on Tuesday.
On the eve of the meeting, DUP leader Arlene Foster set out the party’s red lines, saying that any border effectively being drawn in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Britain would be “catastrophic”.
The PM’s spokesman said on Monday that Mrs May had always made clear that any joint customs arrangements with the EU would be “temporary”, and stressed that this remained the case.
Theresa May has also been urged to “evolve” her deal into a free trade deal that the whole party can support.
Mark Harper, who was a Home Office minister during Mrs May’s tenure in the department and later Chief Whip, told the Telegraph that relying on Labour rebels would not work, saying: “We are going to have to carry this deal on our own benches. If you’re the Prime Minister, you do have to listen to colleagues.”
International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, who campaigned for Leave in the referendum, said she was confident Mrs May is working to achieve a “good Brexit” in negotiations with the EU.
But she suggested that the Prime Minister may have to amend her Chequers plan to get a final deal, saying that “we don’t know where this is going to end up”.
Answering questions following a speech in London, Ms Mordaunt said: “The Prime Minister can count on my support.
“But what I would say is that we don’t know where this is going to end up. We are at a critical moment now. The ball is firmly back in the EU’s court. We are waiting for them to respond.
“I think that what we need to do is just support both the PM but also Dominic Raab and the negotiating team. They are trying to get the best deal for our country and until we know what that is I think that is the best way we can help.”