Theresa May caught between Brexit demands and pro-EU rebellions

Theresa May is facing multiple defeats when crucial Brexit legislation returns to the House of Commons this week, as she comes under pressure from both sides of the political divide on membership of the European Union.

Theresa May is facing multiple defeats when crucial Brexit legislation returns to the House of Commons this week, as she comes under pressure from both sides of the political divide on membership of the European Union.

Labour says it has enough support from Tory rebels to force ministers into a climbdown over the terms of the post-Brexit transition period, in order to the keep the UK in the European single market and customs union until 2021 and beyond.

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Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer has written to Downing Street warning that he will force the issue to a vote when MPs begin debating amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill tomorrow.

Pro-European rebels have also told the Prime Minister that she must set out plans for a “meaningful” vote on the terms of the UK’s Brexit deal, which would allow MPs to reject a “no deal” scenario and potentially seek to keep the UK in the EU.

The warnings come as it emerged that dozens more Tory MPs have signed letters backing a vote of no-confidence, leaving Mrs May on the brink of a party coup. Just eight more rebels are needed to force a leadership contest, it is understood.

Meanwhile, it emerged that Mrs May is facing intense pressure from her own ministers to deliver a “hard Brexit”.

In a secret letter to the Prime Minister, former Leave campaign leaders Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are understood to have set out their demands that any transition period does not last longer than two years.

They also urged the Prime Minister to ensure members of her top team fall behind their Brexit plans by “clarifying their minds” and called for them to “internalise the logic”.

The leaked letter appeared to make a thinly-veiled attack on Chancellor Philip Hammond, who backed remain and wants a softer Brexit, for lacking the “sufficient energy” in preparing for the UK’s future outside the bloc.

Marked “for your and Gavin’s [Number 10 chief of staff Gavin Barwell] eyes only”, the letter states: “We are profoundly worried that in some parts of government the current preparations are not proceeding with anything like sufficient energy. We have heard it argued by some that we cannot start preparations on the basis of ‘No Deal’ because that would undermine our obligation of ‘sincere co-operation’ with the EU. If taken seriously, that would leave us over a barrel in 2021.”

A spokesman said Downing Street did not comment on leaks and neither Mr Johnson nor Mr Gove commented.

It has also emerged that the EU is preparing for the possible collapse of the Brexit negotiations. Michel Barnier, the bloc’s chief negotiator, said failure to reach an agreement was not his preferred option but stressed that it was a “possibility”.

“Everyone needs to plan for it, member states and businesses alike,” he said. “We too are preparing for it technically. A failure of the negotiations would have consequences on multiple domains.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for Mrs May to “govern or go”.

“The Prime Minister must end the confusion, take on the ‘no-deal’ extremists in her government and back a jobs first Brexit for Britain,” he said.

The SNP’s Europe spokesman Stephen Gethins, MP, claimed the letter showed Mrs May was Prime Minister in name only.

“If it wasn’t clear before, it is now – Theresa May has lost all authority and credibility in government,” Mr Gethins said. “The revelation that leading Brexiteers Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are now brazenly able to dictate their hard Brexit demands over a month ago goes to show that they think they can say and do as they please, knowing fine well Theresa May is powerless to act. Theresa May is Prime Minister only by title.”

The next month will see pressure on the government over Brexit reach a peak as votes are taken on amendments to the Withdrawal Bill while talks in Brussels build towards a December deadline.

Mr Barnier has said a breakthrough must be reached within two weeks for trade and transition talks to be given the green light by European leaders at their next summit.

Employers warn that without clarity on a transition phase to ease the UK out of the European Union single market by Christmas they will accelerate plans to shift operations overseas.

MPs will debate a Labour amendment calling for a post-Brexit transition period under existing EU membership terms tomorrow. Under Labour’s plans, the UK would stay in the single market and customs union for as long as four years, and contrary to the wishes of many pro-Brexit Conservatives, would remain under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice for the duration of that transitional period.

In a letter to the Prime Minister today, Mr Starmer claims that Mrs May is too weak to protect UK businesses from a “cliff edge” Brexit.

“Over recent weeks it has become increasingly clear that you alone do not have the authority to deliver a transitional deal with Europe and to take the necessary steps to protect jobs and the economy,” he says.

“Labour will always put the national interest first during the Brexit process. That is why we have tabled amendments to the [Withdrawal] Bill that would put jobs and the economy first by allowing Britain to remain in the Single Market and a Customs Union during a transitional phase.

“I believe there is a sensible majority in the House of Commons for transitional arrangements that serve the national interest.”