Theresa May sparked bitter Cabinet clashes today as she pushed ministers and MPs to accept compromises to save her Brexit deal.
This morning’s weekly Cabinet was described as “an absolute bunfight” by one source after disagreements over possible changes to the deal, including on a customs union.
In a major blow to the Prime Minister, several senior Tories who reluctantly backed her deal in the last Commons vote told the Evening Standard they were minded not to support the amended version.
Ahead of the Cabinet meeting, Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom made clear her support for a new Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) was conditional on it not being changed too much. She also said Britain should be prepared to “walk away” on no-deal terms.
But in a speech to the Confederation of British Industry tonight, Chancellor Philip Hammond will argue “the case for compromise” and stress: “The only sustainable Brexit solution is one that can command a majority in Parliament.” He will denounce a no-deal Brexit as “reckless and dangerous”.
Cabinet broke up after another marathon session lasting nearly three hours. Mrs Leadsom commented as she left: “It’s always fascinating.”
Mrs May was expected to make a speech later on the “big and bold” offer that she is hoping will unlock cross-party support for a new version of the withdrawal agreement that parliament has already rejected three times.
Details of the package leaking out in advance confirmed that Labour has secured stronger workers’ rights and environmental protection.
Cabinet was understood to have been told that Parliament will be allowed to dictate the “objectives” for the next round of talks with the EU. But this was criticised by some Tories for “tying the hands” of party’s next leader.
Mrs May will confirm that she is toughening the section on workers’ rights and green laws in order to “reach out” to Labour MPs.
Significantly, this includes “dynamic alignment”, meaning that UK companies will have to upgrade workers’ rights if the EU does in future, a commitment that could make the UK less competitive after Brexit.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox was said to have been assured that he would have a right to pursue trade deals in the services sector, although this was an issue that Labour plans to challenge in the Commons.
However, a series of options on customs arrangements will be put to votes in the passage of the Bill, which could see his Cabinet role become redundant.
Ministers outside the Cabinet were being briefed this afternoon by the PM’s chief of staff, underlining the sensitivity of the compromises.
Tory Brexiteers who previously voted reluctantly for her withdrawal deal announced one by one that they might not do so next time.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the European Research Group of Brexiteers, said he backed Mrs May’s Brexit plan in the third vote only in order to protect the original timetable for exiting the European Union.
Speaking on a podcast released just before Cabinet met, he was scathing about Mrs May and her “very bad” deal. “As we have already delayed, it’s hard to see any point in having a Bill which fails to avoid the European elections, fails to get us out on time, fails to get the process going in the way that might have worked with a new leader coming in, because Mrs May said that if it went through she would go,” he said. He condemned the forthcoming WAB, due to be voted on next month, as “a weight around the neck of the new leader” who would be saddled with it.
Sources close to Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab, who like Mr Rees-Mogg backed the deal in the third failed vote, said they were waiting to see what the new Bill contained before deciding. Three leading backbenchers said they were minded not to support it.
Former defence minister Sir Mike Penning said: “It’s unlikely that I can support the Bill but let’s see it first.”
Former minister Shailesh Vara said: “I need to see the detail but I’m seriously considering voting against on the basis that it may well end up being a vehicle for a customs union.”
Steve Double said: “Whilst I will wait to see the detail of precisely what we will be asked to vote for, unless the withdrawal agreement is substantially changed, I will be voting against it this time.” Senior No 10 sources said Mrs May will use the committee stage of the Bill to allow amendments that could lead to major compromises on a customs union designed to win over Labour MPs.