MPs for a “soft Brexit” said more and more backbenchers were joining their campaign to keep Britain in the single market, the world’s biggest trading bloc. And a leading Brexit-backer warned Mrs May that “failing to decide” was no longer an option.
In a hard-hitting attack, senior MEP Daniel Hannan said policy was being carried out “in a spirit of damage limitation” and led by officials who opposed Brexit and “now have little sense of where to go with it”.
“We can aim for Efta [European Free Trade Association], working as closely as possible with our European allies,” he wrote on Conservative Home. “Or we can aim for Singapore: a low-tax entrepôt flourishing next to an over-regulated federation. A case can be made for either. But no case can be made for failing to decide.”
The warning came as Government officials confirmed that the Cabinet is to hold its first formal discussion about future relations with the EU before Christmas.
Several Right-wing Conservatives have urged Mrs May to consider leaving without a deal in recent days, including former leader Iain Duncan Smith.
But 19 Tory MPs backing a close trade deal fought back with a letter to Mrs May condemning “highly irresponsible” calls to walk out of talks.
Nicky Morgan, chairman of the Treasury Select Committee who coordinated the letter, said support for a strong trade relationship with Europe was growing. “More MPs are contacting me privately to say they have contacted whips to say they support the content and tone [of the letter],” she said.
Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General who is co-ordinating moves to put Parliament in charge of the final Brexit terms, said: “More colleagues are coming up to me and saying, ‘You were right about this’. For the first time you are getting a sense that the penny is dropping among large numbers of our own party.”
Mrs May was in a race against time to break the deadlock over the Irish border that threatens her hopes of starting trade talks next week. Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, has given her until the weekend, although Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has indicated he would be willing to wait until the eve of a summit starting in a week.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, one of the Cabinet’s main Brexiteers, said: “I remain absolutely optimistic we will reach a successful point, we will move on to the trade talks, because ultimately it is in everybody’s interests for that to happen.”