Theresa May began a crunch week to save her leadership today as Transport Secretary Chris Grayling vowed that the Cabinet will veto any deal that means being trapped “in limbo” under European Union rules.
With pressure mounting to find a way out of the Brexit talks deadlock, senior MPs said a confidence vote could be triggered if the Prime Minister makes one false step in the next four days due to a loss of faith on all sides of the Conservative Party.
Mrs May came out fighting with a combative article in The Sun vowing to take “the right choices, not the easy ones” and a statement in the Commons telling MPs that “95 per cent” of a Brexit deal had been agreed.
Senior MPs expect her to appear at the backbench 1922 Committee on Wednesday, where there is a tradition of cheering party leaders whose backs are to the wall.
But Mr Grayling, who managed the Prime Minister’s own leadership campaign in 2016, spelled out the opposition among senior Brexiteers to any a backstop deal that failed to include either a break clause or an end date.
Mr Grayling, a Brexit backer, said he could accept a “short” extension of the two-year transition period, during which Britain will stay aligned with EU laws, but stressed it could not be open ended.
“I’m perfectly happy to contemplate a short bridge between the end of the implementation period and the start of the future economic partnership if it is necessary,” he told Today. “I don’t think it needs to be necessary, I don’t want it to be necessary.
“But of course what it can’t do, it absolutely can’t do, is trap us in limbo indefinitely, and the Cabinet is completely united about that.”
His words echoed Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab who said yesterday a “customs union limbo” was not acceptable.
Both ministers were guests at the pizza night last week where Brexiteers in Cabinet discussed the permanent legal implications of the backstop being demanded by the EU side.
Although the idea of an extension of the transition, which is currently due to end in December 2020, has enraged many backbenchers, senior Cabinet ministers have indicated they would be more concerned by a Northern Ireland border backstop that gave the EU the power to keep the province hostage in a customs union in future.
Mrs May endured some of the most virulent criticism of her leadership at the weekend, with anonymous Tory MPs saying she would be “knifed in the front” and should “bring her own noose” if the attended the 1922 Committee.
Her critical week will continue with answering questions from backbenchers after her statement in the Commons. Tomorrow’s Cabinet is expected to have its own discussion, while back benchers are threatening to raise questions at the 1922 Committee.
An executive member of the committee, which represents backbench MPs, said: “She would be very wise to turn up and talk to MPs. I think she would get support if she did.”
A senior mer minister agreed that Mrs May would be wise to face MPs. “The most disloyal shits will be banging their desks for the sake of the media listening outside,” he said. “Because that’s the way the party works.”
MPs on all sides rounded on anonymous colleagues who were quoted in weekend reports saying Mrs May will be “dead soon” and was entering “the killing zone”.
One Tory MPs was reported in the Sunday Times saying: “The moment is coming when the knife gets heated, stuck in her front and twisted. She’ll be dead soon. Assassination is in the air.”
Another source described as an ally of former Brexit Secretary David Davis said Mrs May was now entering “the killing zone”.
Hardline Tory Brexiter Andrew Bridgen denied claims on social media that he was behind the language. He told the Standard he condemned it: “At this stage of crucial work for the Conservative Party, that language will only illicit sympathy for the PM and for those who have a problem with her policies and would like to change them, it’s counter-productive.
“My comments were on the record and it was that she was drinking in the last chance saloon and the bad news for her is that the bar is already dry.
“I suspected that people would think it was me but it wasn’t. [The comments are] inappropriate, and at this stage it was particularly counter-productive. It will make people feel sorry for her.”
Former Tory minister Nick Boles said on Twitter that comments came from s “a very small man, in every respect. Everyone in Parliament knows who it is.”
Brexiteer and Conservative MP Mark Francois said the language was “unacceptable” but that he would not tell Chief whip Julian Smith how to do his job.
Pro-Remain Tory Anna Soubry attacked him on Twitter afterwards, saying: “I am appalled that my colleague £MarkFrancoisMP failed unequivocally to condemn the disgraceful and dangerous language used by a fellow Conservative MP against the PM @BBCr4today he even tried to excuse it. Shameful.” Shadow foreign secretary Home Affairs Committee chair Yvette Cooper said: “Nobody should be subject to that kind of violent language which I think is normalising violence in public debate at a time when we lost Jo Cox, we have had threats against Rosie Cooper, we have had other violent death threats against women MPs.”
Emily Thornberry defended her decision, along with the rest of Labour’s front bench, not to attend the massive “People’s Vote” march in London on Saturday calling for a second EU referendum.
Some 700,000 people were claimed to have marched to Parliament Square. Ms Thornberry told Today she had instead been in Crawley in West Sussex, “where 58% of the population voted to leave the EU”, talking to activists and businesses.
She added: “I want to have a people’s vote, but I want to have a big and proper people’s vote, which is a general election.”
Fellow Brexiteer Tory Andrew Bridgen said the language was “unhelpful” and warned his fellow Brexiteers that it risked increasing sympathy and support for the Prime Minister.
The North West Leicestershire MP told Good Morning Britain: “At the moment that (language) is unhelpful. It won’t persuade colleagues to back a change of leadership.
“It’s actually going to be counter-productive at this point.”