Philip Hammond suspects that Boris Johnson may be attempting to trick MPs into backing a “heavily camouflaged” no-deal Brexit amid claims that senior ministers are wooing hard Brexit supporters with the possibility of crashing out of Europe.
The former chancellor, who had the whip withdrawn for opposing no deal, has challenged the prime minister to show that he will not use the transition period to run down the clock and leave without an agreement in December 2020.
His claims follow an interview with John Baron, a member of the European Research Group (ERG), who appeared to claim that the cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Dominic Raab had told him that a no-deal exit was possible if trade talks failed.
In an article in the Times, Hammond wrote: “I haven’t come this far seeking to avoid no-deal in 2019 to be duped into voting for a heavily camouflaged no-deal at the end of 2020. But I am not a lost cause.”
Hammond is backing an amendment tabled by Sir Oliver Letwin that would withhold final support for the deal until the Brexit legislation has been passed.
If this amendment passed, it would trigger the Benn act, which requires the government to request a delay until the end of January.
Johnson and his allies have spent Friday trying to form a coalition of Tory Brexiters, former Tories and Labour MPs to reach the 320 needed for a Commons majority.
Baron, who consistently voted against Theresa May’s deal, indicated he had been told by Johnson’s allies Gove and Raab that the new deal leaves open the possibility of leaving the EU on World Trade Organization rules.
“Provided we can get that clear assurance, and I have been given it so far by people like Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, and I’m hoping to get it from the prime minister tomorrow, that we will be leaving after the trade talks, if those trade talks fail up to December 2020, on no-deal terms … then we’ll be supporting the deal tomorrow,” Baron told the BBC.
Second referendum campaigners seized on his words as proof that the prime minister’s deal is a route to a no-deal Brexit.
Under the government’s current plan, the UK would leave the EU legally on 31 October but then remain in a transition until December 2020, during which most aspects of EU law would continue to apply.
Ministers claim that they will be able to negotiate a new trade relationship with the EU before the end of next year, but the withdrawal agreement allows the transition to be extended for an extra year or two years. Most trade experts think that in practice this will be necessary because there is very little chance of negotiating a trade deal within 14 months.
Johnson and his ministers are concentrating on wooing the 28 hardline Brexiters, known as the Spartans, whose votes could be vital in passing the bill on Saturday.
Some ERG members told the Guardian that they had been persuaded to support the Johnson deal after reading the opinion of a noted barrister and Brexit supporter, Martin Howe QC. He wrote in the Telegraph on Friday that the Johnson deal leaves open an option of walking away from a trade deal.
“Unlike the May deal, the UK will have the real option of walking away if the terms are not good enough,” he wrote.
Some hardliners have held meetings with Johnson. Suella Braverman, another so-called Spartan and a former Brexit minister, announced her support for the Johnson deal after visiting Downing Street.
“Tomorrow I will vote to support the new deal secured by @BorisJohnson. This is about more than Brexit. It’s about integrity and democracy,” she wrote on Twitter.
Mark Francois, the deputy chair of the ERG, was also called in to see the prime minister. He told reporters: “I still have some concerns about some of the specifics of the deal. So I’m going to go in now and discuss them personally with the prime minister. He very kindly granted me a meeting.”
Fellow ERG stalwarts Steve Baker and Sir Bernard Jenkin have been positive about the Johnson deal but have not yet confirmed how they will vote. The ERG will hold an emergency meeting on Saturday morning before going to the chamber for the vote.