Theresa May will sacrifice the “loyal middle” of her party if she strikes a deal with Labour to keep Britain in a customs union with the EU, a group of former cabinet ministers and senior Tories has warned.
Thirteen of Mrs May’s former cabinet colleagues as well as Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, have written to her with a plea to reject Jeremy Corbyn’s key demand for a cross-party agreement to secure ratification of her Brexit divorce deal.
The group includes Gavin Williamson, who was dismissed as defence secretary this month, and the two leading Brexiteer candidates to replace Mrs May: Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab. Also included are Maria Miller and Sir Michael Fallon, who supported Remain in the referendum. The group points out that they all voted for her deal on March 29.
They warn Mrs May that she could lose more Tory MPs than she gains Labour backers if she breaks her “solemn promise” to leave the EU’s customs union, in an intervention timed to coincide with a cabinet meeting today.
Senior ministers will press Mrs May to end the Labour talks but are split over what happens next.
Remain cabinet ministers want her to construct a compromise deal through a series of “definitive votes”. Brexiteers favour bringing in parts of the Brexit implementation legislation, paving the way for another attempt to remove the Irish backstop from the deal.
The prime minister’s next Brexit move is likely to be her last as pressure grows on her to resign. She will meet the 1922 Committee’s executive on Thursday after its request that she set out a timetable for her departure regardless of whether parliament approves her deal.
In their letter the group of senior Tories warns that a compromise that includes a customs union would survive only for as long as she stayed in No 10. “We believe that a customs union- based deal with Labour will very likely lose the support of Conservative MPs, like us, who backed the withdrawal agreement in March . . . and you would be unlikely to gain as many Labour MPs to compensate. More fundamentally, you would have lost the loyal middle of the Conservative Party, split our party and with likely nothing to show for it. No leader can bind his or her successor so the deal would likely be at best temporary, at worst illusory.”
There is a growing nervousness among the soft Brexiteers in the cabinet that options are fast disappearing.
Many of them, including Philip Hammond, David Gauke and Amber Rudd, will push Mrs May today for so-called indicative votes to determine the next move on Brexit. The only option they believe to be feasible is a customs union, although the combined Tory and Labour revolts mean that this is far from certain. They concede that there will be huge uncertainty at that point if no option gets a majority. One cabinet source said: “If none of these get through then it becomes a straight choice between no deal and second referendum.”
Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, is understood to be among those cabinet ministers sceptical about giving MPs a range of Brexit options to choose from. He believes that Mrs May should attempt to put elements of the Withdrawal Bill before parliament to “show progress” even if they do not include more controversial elements such as the Northern Irish backstop.
“The problem with indicative votes is you could easily see a situation in which most people’s third choice ended up as the most popular option,” a government source said. “We’re in a vacuum and the longer that continues the more tensions are heightened.”
Another government figure said that the Cabinet Office had drawn up a document outlining the basis of a possible deal that could be presented to ministers. One option would be for the government to publish the proposal in an attempt to put pressure on Labour.
Such a move could further inflame the Conservative right, who have already warned that they will not accept any kind of long-term customs deal with the EU.