Conservative party whips threatened rebels with a vote of no confidence in the prime minister and a general election in order to push through a vital bill, a Tory MP has claimed, as she called for a cross-party “government of national unity” to be brought in to handle Brexit.
Anna Soubry said the whipping operation during Brexit votes in the Commons on Tuesday evening was an “appalling spectacle” and Theresa May had lost control of the party.
“These nonsenses of threatening general elections and votes of confidence in the prime minister, and as I actually said to the deputy chief whip ‘bring it on’ because I shall be the first in the queue to give my vote of full confidence in the prime minister,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Problem is, I don’t think that she’s in charge any more. I’ve no doubt Jacob Rees-Mogg is running our country.”
Soubry said there needed to be cross-party collaboration on a new Brexit deal, but she said Labour had the “old Trotskyists in charge”.
“I personally would abandon the Labour frontbench and I would reach beyond it and I would encompass Plaid Cymru, the SNP and other sensible, pragmatic people who believe in putting this country’s interests first and foremost,” she said.
May narrowly avoided all-out Tory civil war and a potential leadership challenge from the Eurosceptic wing of the party when MPs defeated a proposed amendment to the trade bill by six votes.
MPs voted 307 to 301 to overturn the amendment, under which Britain would have been forced to join a customs union with the EU if no agreement was reached on frictionless trade by 21 January 2019.
Twelve Tory remainers including Soubry, Stephen Hammond and Nicky Morgan backed the proposal, which they claimed offered a safeguard in the event of there being no trade agreement with the EU in the run-up to Brexit on 29 March. Tory remainers argued their proposal was “exactly in line” with the government’s Brexit white paper.
Overnight on Tuesday it was claimed that more Tory MPs would have rebelled if government whips had not threatened to pull the third reading of the bill and table a no-confidence vote in May themselves if the vote was lost, raising the spectre of a general election.
Five Labour Brexit-supporting MPs, including one who is suspended, voted with the government against the customs “backstop” plan – Kate Hoey, John Mann, Frank Field, Graham Stringer and Kelvin Hopkins.
Earlier, May suffered an unexpected defeat when MPs backed calls for the UK to remain under EU medicines regulation.
The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, said in an op-ed on Wednesday that Labour would never back May’s Brexit blueprint, drawn up by the cabinet at Chequers for last week’s white paper.
“If you think Labour will support your fatally flawed Chequers agreement then you have another thing coming,” he wrote. “No ifs, no buts. We cannot simply accept an unworkable compromise that has been thrown together to try to keep the Tory party together.”
Soubry said pro-EU Tories had major reservations about the Chequers plan but had been prepared to back it until May caved in to hard Brexiters on the customs bill on Monday and backed several amendments put down by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who chairs the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs.
“We had a grotesque spectacle on Monday whereby the government actually whipped its own members of parliament to support amendments deliberately designed to wreck that very pragmatic white paper,” Soubry said. “So now it is in tatters and they know that.”
The senior Tory Nicholas Soames has previously mooted the idea of a national unity government, telling Channel 4 News: “I must say if I had my way we would have a national government to deal with this. It is the most serious problem this country has faced since the war.”
May faces another day of pressure in the Commons on Wednesday, including prime minister’s questions and an appearance in front of the liaison committee of senior MPs. In the evening she will face backbenchers at a meeting of the 1922 Committee. Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, is expected to make a resignation speech in the Commons.
The Cabinet Office minister David Lidington said on Wednesday that leaving the customs union was a key plank of May’s strategy and the amendment could not have been allowed to pass.
“It’s in the Conservative manifesto that we should not join a customs union,” he told Today. “We need to focus very much on the positive detailed plan put forward by the British government in the white paper. What we are keen to do now is sit down with our 27 counterparts and work through those proposals.”
Lidington said the government would be setting out more details of its preparations for a no-deal scenario in the coming weeks. “But our energies are going into negotiating a positive way forward with out European counterparts. That is what we expect to happen.”