A leading Tory Brexiteer has issued a new warning to Theresa May that she faces a Commons defeat if she presses ahead with her Chequers blueprint for Brexit.
Just hours after the British Prime Minister appealed to the party to unite behind her plan, former Brexit minister Steve Baker, who quit over Chequers, urged her to avoid a political “accident” and rethink her approach to negotiations with Brussels.
Mr Baker, a leading member of the pro-Brexit Tory European Research Group, said even if only half the 80 Conservative MPs who had indicated their opposition to the plan actually voted against it would be enough to defeat the Government.
In her closing address to the Conservative conference on Wednesday, Mrs May sought to rally her warring party with an appeal to back her proposed deal in the “national interest”. She warned that if Tory MPs split in pursuing their “perfect Brexit” they risked ending up with “no Brexit at all”.
However Mr Baker – who backed former foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s conference call to “chuck Chequers” – said she would face a “substantial” revolt unless she changed course.
Mr Baker has previously said there were 80 Tory MPs were prepared to vote for an amendment protesting against Chequers, which they believe keeps the UK too closely tied to the EU after Brexit.
We don’t want to have this accident. We are trying very hard to avoid these circumstances arising
While he acknowledged that supporting a protest motion was a different matter to voting down an actual deal, he said the Government whips would still struggle to get it through the House. “We don’t want to have this accident. We are trying very hard to avoid these circumstances arising,” he told ITV’s Peston show.
“Voting against a Chequers-based deal would be quite a high bar, I am not going to deny that. But what I am saying is that even if the whips did fantastically well and got the numbers down to 40 it still seems to me that it will be voted down.
“I am trying very hard to avoid that by being very plain with everybody on the record what I expect to happen if a Chequers-based deal comes back.” His intervention suggests any breathing space won by Mrs May after what was generally a well-received conference speech in Birmingham may be short-lived.
The British Prime Minister – who danced onto the platform to the strains of Abba’s Dancing Queen – sought to lift the party’s spirits raising the prospect of an end to a decade of austerity.
At the same time, she insisted her Chequers plan was the only proposal that would honour the referendum vote to leave the EU while avoiding the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
She was backed by the Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom – a prominent Leave campaigner in the referendum – who said it met her “red lines” for Brexit.
“That is the only deal that is on the table,” she told the Peston show.
“It is also the only deal that keeps the United Kingdom together, that avoids hard infrastructure on at border between Northern Ireland and Ireland or – even worse – a border down the Irish Sea.”
She refused to be drawn however on whether Mrs May should continue as Prime Minister after Britain has left the EU.
“That’s all for the future. She has shown her absolute determination to fulfil the referendum. I just think politics is a short-term game, a week changes a lot,” she said.
Meanwhile Nigel Dodds, the deputy leader of the DUP which props up the Government, in the Commons issued a fresh warning that they would not accept any deal which imposes a border checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Mrs May has said she will come forward with revised proposals to try to break the deadlock with the EU over the so-called Irish “backstop” to prevent the return of a hard border if the two sides fail to reach a wider agreement on their future relationship.
“Our position is very, very clear. There can be no new regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom,” Mr Dodds told the Peston show.