- Theresa May could be defeated on a central plank of her Brexit policy as eight Conservative MPs join with Labour to back staying in a customs union with the EU.
- Former Conservative leader William Hague has accused them of being Jeremy Corbyn’s “pawns.”
- Rebels hope to force the prime minister to change course in order to avoid defeat.
- Business Insider has spoken to the Conservative rebels both on and off the record about claims they risk bringing down the government.
LONDON – A growing number of Conservative MPs are backing an amendment to one of Theresa May’s flagship Brexit bills, despite warnings that it could bring down her government.
The amendment to the government’s Trade Bill is designed to force the prime minister to commit to staying inside “a customs union” with the European Union after Brexit.
It has so far received the backing of the following eight Tory MPs, including several former ministers:
- Anna Soubry
- Nicky Morgan
- Dr Sarah Wollaston
- Jonathan Djanogly
- Stephen Hammond
- Heidi Allen
- Jeremy Lefroy
- Robert Neill
This means it has the potential to wipe out Prime Minister May’s working majority in the House of Commons, given Labour’s support for the vote. Several other Tory MPs are also rumoured to be about to join the rebellion.
Senior Conservative figures have warned that defeat, on such a central issue for the government, could effectively act as a vote of no confidence in the prime minister and therefore help usher in a Labour government.
On Monday, former Conservative leader William Hague warned Conservative MPs backing the amendment that they could “bring down the Government” and urged his colleagues not to become “pawns” in “Corbyn’s cynical game.”
Business Insider has spoken to some of the leading Conservative MPs backing the amendment both on and off the record, about whether they’re really prepared to inflict a risky defeat on the prime minister.
‘There is a large majority for a soft Brexit’
Stephen Hammond, who served as a minister under David Cameron, was sacked as the Conservative party’s vice-chair after he helped inflict a parliamentary Brexit defeat on the current prime minister back in December.
May was defeated then after 11 Conservative MPs joined with Labour in backing an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill calling for a “meaningful vote” on her Brexit deal.
It was one of the lowest points of May’s premiership to date and earned Hammond and his Conservative colleagues a place on the front page of the Daily Mail with the splash headline “PROUD OF YOURSELVES?”
Hammond says he was not put off by that experience and now believes there is a working majority in the Commons to keep Britain inside a customs union, despite the prime minister’s stated opposition to it.
“It is clear that at this moment there is undoubtedly a majority for staying in a customs union,” Hammond told BI on Tuesday.
He added that the prime minister must now commit to “replicating” the existing Customs Union or risk defeat.
“There is a large majority in the House of Commons for the sort of things that would make for a soft Brexit and if the government’s proposition about a new customs union partnership, arrangement… doesn’t essentially replicate the Customs union then I think there are going to be problems for the economy.”
Indeed the press attacks on the Brexit rebels appear to have backfired and rallied support amongst Remain-backing Conservatives, who are no longer scared of the Brexit-supporting press.
“I’ve been through all that now so that doesn’t worry me at all,” one of the Tory rebels told Business Insider this week.
The MP said a letter earlier this month by Conservative Brexiteers demanding that May leaves the single market during the transition had also hardened their resolve.
“That was a moment when we realised we needed to stand up and be counted,” they said.
“We realised we needed to stand up and be counted” – Remain-supporting Conservative MP.
The Trade bill was expected to come before MPs in the coming weeks but has now been delayed until the spring amid fears that the government is heading for defeat.
However, Hammond believes the pressure he and his colleagues are putting on May could force her to change her position when she makes her landmark Brexit speech this Friday.
“We need to hear Mrs May’s speech on Friday, which she says will take away the need for these amendments, and if it does then so much the better,” Hammond said.
Another Tory MP who spoke to Business Insider said the prime minister needs “to be very clear about what is doable.”
She says May must spell our to to her party’s hardline Brexiteers in her speech on Friday that ending free movement during transition “just isn’t going to happen.”
I ask Hammond what his response is to Hague’s suggestion that he and his colleagues are “pawns” in Corbyn’s plan to bring down the government.
“I’m a great fan of William [Hague] but I would do nothing that would endanger the government,” he replies.
“There is nothing in anything I have done or my colleagues have done that will bring down the government, not least because technically we can’t. The act that William actually voted for along with all the rest of us, the Fixed Term Parliament act, doesn’t actually allow us to bring down the government.”
Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, a government can only be brought down if two-thirds of the House of Commons votes for it. This means that a defeat on the Trade Bill would not in any way automatically force May’s exit or another general election.
However, defeat on such a central part of the government’s Brexit policy would undoubtedly be hugely damaging to May and it is possible to envisage a set of circumstances where it helped trigger the prime minister’s departure.
In order to avoid that, May will need to say something on Friday to bring her party’s Remain-supporting rebels onside. It’s unclear what that something could be, given she has repeatedly ruled out either staying in the current customs union or any new form of it.
I’m a great fan of William [Hague] but I would do nothing that would endanger the government
“What I really want to hear her say [on Friday] is how her new arrangements can replace the benefits of the current EU customs union and how it will broadly replicate it,” Hammond says.
The growing Tory rebellion on the issue follows the announcement this week from Labour leader Corbyn that the party now backs forming a new customs union with the EU. The announcement received rare applause from business groups who have been campaigning for a change in the government’s policy on the issue.
Hammond dismisses the idea that business is now backing Labour, but does warn that his party must do reassure the British business community.
“I don’t think business is backing anyone at the moment,” he says.
“I think what they were doing yesterday is recognising that the normally mad, lunatic, left-wing proposition of Mr Corbyn wasn’t being put forward. And you have to say a recognition of a customs union that broadly replicates what we have now is frankly necessary for trade.”
Hammond believes that his own party now needs to make a similar pro-business shift in favour of a softer Brexit policy. He plans further amendments to the bill which he believes could also force the government towards moving towards a more pro-single market position.
“I would ask William [Hague] to ask the government, make sure that what you’re bringing forward is business friendly and friendly to the jobs and the economy of this country,” he explains.
“It is this government’s task now to prove that what Mrs May says on Friday can deliver that.”
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