Boris Johnson urged to answer Tory rebel MPs questions, as general election speculation mounts

Former Chancellor Philip Hammond has demanded answers from Boris Johnson over Brexit.
Former Chancellor Philip Hammond has demanded answers from Boris Johnson over Brexit.
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Former chancellor Philip Hammond has written to Boris Johnson demanding answers about his plans for Brexit after the Prime Minister abruptly cancelled a meeting with potential Tory rebel MPs.

The MPs were due to meet with the Prime Minister today in a showdown over their decision to vote with the opposition to wrest control of parliamentary business from the government, and block a no-deal Brexit.

Mr Johnson was expected to threaten the MPs with losing the whip and de-selection as Tory candidates at the next election if they voted against the government, saying it would be "entirely unreasonable" for them to attempt to bind his hands

However, the meeting was cancelled while the Prime Minister held an emergency meeting of his Cabinet, sparking speculation that a General Election could be called if the government loses the Commons vote tomorrow.

With the Tories having a majority of just one with the DUP's support, removing the whip from rebels would further weaken his hold on Parliament and increase the chances of an election.

In a series of questions, Mr Hammond called on Mr Johnson to publish the UK's proposals for changes to the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement before Parliament sits tomorrow and "confirm that these UK proposals have been finally communicated to the European Union".

Mr Hammond also told the Prime Minister: "Since many colleagues were intending to use your responses in the planned meeting today to decide how they, personally, should proceed over the next few days, it would be extremely helpful if you could respond to these specific questions before the House sits tomorrow."

His letter asked Mr Johnson to confirm that the changes the government wants to the Withdrawal Bill are limited to the backstop; to publish his alternative to the backstop; to confirm the new proposals have been sent to the European Union and to commit to publishing any response; and to answer all questions before tomorrow's vote.

A Downing Street source said the Cabinet would today "discuss the government's response to MPs seeking to take control of legislative agenda away from government and handing it to the opposition and Corbyn without the consent of the people."

The view from Number 10 is that the expected vote on Tuesday is "an expression of confidence in (the) Government's negotiating position to secure a deal and will be treated as such".

The Prime Minister's official spokesman earlier told a Westminster briefing that the UK would leave the EU "whatever the circumstances" on October 31.

He added: "The Prime Minister has said from the start that he will be energetic in pursuit of a deal. We have put forward reasonable proposals and the PM and his team have been discussing these with EU leaders and the commission over the summer recess.

"It would be entirely unreasonable for MPs - having rejected the previous deal three times - to attempt to bind the hands of the Prime Minister as he seeks to negotiate a deal they can support ahead of EU Council in October."

It is understood the Prime Minister still plans to host all Tory MPs at Number 10 this evening for a gathering which could prove awkward given the threat to remove the whip from rebels.

Earlier, Mr Johnson was accused of "goading" some Tory MPs to rebel so he can force a snap general election having purged opponents of a no-deal Brexit from the party.

Conservative David Gauke, the former justice secretary and rebel ringleader, accused the Prime Minister of deliberately trying to lose votes to block a deal-less departure this week.

Mr Gauke, the leader of the so-called "Gaukeward squad" of Tory rebels, said the Prime Minister's move was an "unusual" and "particularly confrontational" approach.

And he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that he has not been subject to the usual "cajoling" from Cabinet allies to urge him to support the Government's line.

"I don't think there seems to be a huge effort to persuade people to support the Government this week. I think they seem to be quite prepared for there to be a rebellion, then to purge those who support the rebellion from the party," he said.

"None of that is happening. The usual operation isn't particularly happening. It does seem to me they are almost goading people into voting against the Government.

"Because I think the strategy, to be honest, is to lose this week and then seek a general election having removed those of us who are not against Brexit, not against leaving the European Union, but believe we should do so with a deal."

Mr Gauke also said he has taken the extraordinary move of writing to Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland, asking them to confirm whether the Government believes in the rule of law.

The backbencher's letter came after Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove refused to confirm whether ministers would abide by any no-deal prevention law passed.

Mr Gauke said: "The rule of law is hugely important to this country and I am concerned by some of the briefings that have been put out by the Government suggesting that they won't comply with the law, and I think Michael was equivocal on that question yesterday."

Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg defended the tough line being taken by Number 10 against potential rebels. "I think that it is important for the Government to establish the House of Commons and that this is essentially a confidence matter," he told LBC Radio.

"Is there really a Conservative in this country who thinks that Jeremy Corbyn should control our legislative agenda?"

Schools Minister Nick Gibb told Today that the whips were making it clear that it is "a very serious issue" to "undermine our negotiating position" by blocking a no-deal.

Tory MP Antoinette Sandbach said she was willing to put her job on the line to vote against the Government and accused Mr Johnson of hypocrisy for twice rebelling by voting against Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement.

"I find it staggeringly hypocritical that he's threatening to take the whip away," Ms Sandbach told Sky News. "If that had happened to him when he voted against Theresa May's deal, he wouldn't have had the opportunity to stand to be Prime Minister of this country."

Meanwhile, Mr Corbyn was to hold a special meeting of the shadow cabinet in Salford to finalise tactics for opposing a no-deal Brexit. And former prime minister Tony Blair used a speech in London to urge Labour not to support any push by Downing Street for an early general election, but demand a Brexit referendum instead.