Theresa May’s leadership has been plunged into fresh turmoil over Brexit after warring Tory MPs condemned her “common rulebook” plan to broker the UK’s departure from the EU.
The Prime Minister suffered another resignation last night and was branded a “Remainer who has remained a Remainer” over the Chequers proposal, which sceptics fear will mean the UK remains a “rule taker” from Brussels.
The stand-off with some of her MPs is set to intensify this week as she faces a series of tests in the House of Commons. A potentially damaging resignation speech from former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is feared, along with critical votes on key Brexit legislation.
Escalating Tory tensions prompted trade minister Lord Duncan, a key ally of the Prime Minister, to warn hardline Brexiteer MPs against a potential leadership challenge.
Mrs May yesterday insisted that her controversial plan for trade in goods after Brexit is a “good deal” for the UK and urged MPs to get behind it.
She has been under pressure since publication of the plan last week prompted the shock resignations of David Davis as Brexit Secretary and Mr Johnson as Foreign Secretary. Last night, Robert Courts quit as Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Foreign Office, citing his discontent with the Chequers plan.
“I had to think who I wanted to see in the mirror for the rest of my life,” he said in a resignation statement.
Mrs May admitted yesterday she had to make changes to the UK’s initial Brexit blueprint to meet trade concerns of the EU.
She told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “We needed to come forward with another option in order to ensure that we can get those negotiations on trade – the clock is ticking.
“But this is a deal that has benefits. Our companies will abide by these rules anyway. Giving them frictionless borders means that the jobs that depend on that frictionless trade will be protected.
“It means we deliver on the Northern Ireland border. It means we have got benefits out of this deal. This is a good deal for the UK.” The revised approach, she added, came after the EU offered two options for a deal – neither of which was acceptable to the UK.
She acknowledged that there were strong feelings about the terms of Britain’s withdrawal. “Many people voted from the heart to leave the European Union. My job as Prime Minister is to deliver for them,” she said.
“But also I have got to be hard-headed and practical about this and do it in a way that ensures we get the best interests for the UK.”
Mrs May denied that Mr Davis had been “cut out” of the plan and therefore had no choice but to resign.
But he hit out at the proposed common rulebook with the EU at the weekend. He said: “None of this really amounts to taking back control.
“What is more, it is likely that the EU, having achieved a break in the UK’s position, will simply pocket the concessions and ask for more. For that reason alone this is a very bad decision.”
Mr Davis insisted the climbdown on regulation is far from an “arcane technicality”. He said: “It would mean that the UK is simply not running its own economy.
“How laws are made is also a central indicator of whether we have a functioning democracy. If Parliament determines laws, we have one. Otherwise, we do not.”
Another leading Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, also went on the offensive, branding the common rulebook plan as a “retreat” which effectively means obeying EU laws.
“The government unfortunately believes that Brexit is not a good thing in itself,” he said.
“The Prime Minister said people voted with their hearts and she’s doing something with her head – in my view and in the view of most Brexiteers, head and heart come together.
“Brexit is enormously positive, a huge opportunity for the country, and I’m afraid the Prime Minister doesn’t see that. It is why I think she is a Remainer who has remained a Remainer.”
Mrs May has said her plan would end both the free movement of people and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the UK. But Mr Rees-Mogg said the ECJ would have a role that is “effectively the same as it has now”.
Tory MPs are believed to be close to hitting the 48 “no confidence” letters they need to trigger a leadership contest.
Although it seems unlikely that such a vote would see half of Tory MPs vote her out as party leader, the Prime Minister declined to say whether she would stay and contest such a battle if it was instigated.
However, Lord Duncan called for party unity, saying: “Anyone who thinks they might write a letter needs to stop and think about what the effects eventually would be.
“Actually I think she would win any vote of confidence hands down if it were to come to that.
“But the very fact people think they might do this is utterly destructive, utterly unnecessary and they should back her to the hilt.”
MPs will today vote on amendments to the Customs Bill tabled by members of the European Research Group, which Mr Rees-Mogg leads, intended to scupper her plans for a “UK-EU free trade area” based on a common rulebook.
With no Labour backing, the changes stand little chance of getting through, although the votes could provide Conservative Brexiteers with the opportunity to stage a show of strength in Parliament.
Mrs May could face a further challenge tomorrow, this time from pro-EU Tories seeking to amend the Trade Bill to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU, although it is unclear whether they will now put it to a vote.
Former Brexit minister Steve Baker, who quit with Mr Johnson and Mr Davis, said the Chequers plan was drawn up in the Cabinet Office while the Department for Exiting the EU had been reduced to a sham “Potemkin structure”.