A group of remain-backing Tory MPs are plotting to form a rival movement to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s highly effective Eurosceptics, with the aim of voting down Theresa May’s Brexit deal amid concerns that it would wreck the economy.
Senior MPs behind the new group said they believed the Eurosceptics would eventually swing behind May’s final Brexit deal, but Tory whips had underestimated the strength of feeling from the other wing of the party.
It is claimed that up to 30 pro-Europe Tory MPs are sympathetic to the idea of voting against a version of May’s Chequers deal, in particular if she moves towards a Canada-style free trade deal after the final round of frantic negotiations with Brussels.
A number of the MPs hope that this will force a second referendum, breaking the parliamentary impasse and returning the decision to the British people, though the move is highly dependent on the final outcome of the negotiations.
“There’s a significant number of Conservatives who are deeply worried about any kind of pivot towards Canada [a looser free trade deal], which they can see coming,” one former minister said. “I do think that would then lose the other wing of the party. It’s an impossible circle that she can’t square.”
Pro-Europe Conservative MPs are planning to formalise a name and whipping operation for the group by the end of October, in time to organise for the parliamentary vote. One tongue-in-cheek suggestion is “the Patriots”.
The MPs have been inspired by the effectiveness of the European Research Group (ERG) of about 80 Tory MPs who favour a hard Brexit, led by Rees-Mogg and the former Brexit minister, Steve Baker.
Pro-Brexit - European Reform Group
The long-established coalition of Brexit-minded Conservative MPs – though it publishes no list of members – led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, and one of Theresa May’s main obstacles in parliament.
Leave Means Leave
Headed by the businessman Richard Tice, and newly joined by Nigel Farage, this group seeks a Brexit completely outside any single market, customs union or EU oversight.
The successor group to the official leave campaign, it is headed by Labour MP Gisela Stuart, and says it wants to see the referendum result “respected and delivered in full”.
Stand Up 4 Brexit
A new group campaigning to sink May’s Chequers proposals, which claims the support of 20 Tory MPs, among them Priti Patel and Iain Duncan Smith.
The unofficial leave campaign, financed by Arron Banks, which faces scrutiny about its tactics and funding. These days mainly a Twitter feed that mixes Brexit news with far-right-friendly messages about immigrants and Islam.
Soft Brexit/remain - Open Britain
Springing up in the wake of the referendum, this grouped MPs from various parties in pushing for a soft Brexit. It was supported by some Tories, such as Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve, but they cut ties over a plan to oust hard Brexit-backing MPs.
Best for Britain
A later arrival, chaired by the former Labour minister Mark Malloch-Brown, this is more directly opposed to Brexit itself, and has received funding from the billionaire George Soros.
Part of Open Britain, this group calls for a referendum on the final Brexit deal.
A long-established pro-EU group with sections across Europe, this has had a lower-profile role in the Brexit aftermath. Chaired by ex-Conservative cabinet minister Stephen Dorrell.
Our Future Our Choice
Set up by and seeking to represent young people, the group organises protests, and is probably best known for its eloquent spokesman Femi Oluwole.
For Our Future’s Sake
Going by the handy acronym of FFS, this is a student-based group seeking to block Brexit.
Scientists for the EU
A self-explanatorily named niche pressure group with a heavyweight set of scientific backers.
“The ERG do have a game plan, but hitherto people on the other wing of the party haven’t really. But there’s a growing sense we need to,” the ex-minister said.
Fourteen pro-Europe Conservative MPs voted against the government in July after May accepted amendments tabled by the ERG to the customs bill.
May’s willingness to cave in to the Eurosceptics sparked anger from remain-backing MPs, who retaliated by rebelling themselves and came close to defeating the government, which was saved only by the votes of Labour Brexiters and a handful of accidental absentees including Liberal Democrat MPs.
Tory MPs who rebelled over those amendments included Nicky Morgan, Stephen Hammond, Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen, Mark Pawsey, Ken Clarke and Jonathan Djanogly, though not all of that number have said that they support a second referendum or attempts to defeat any future deal.
Tories who have publicly backed a new referendum include the former education secretary Justine Greening, the former defence minister Guto Bebb, and the former business minister Anna Soubry.
One MP involved in the group cited “reasonable MPs” such as Morgan, Hammond and Dominic Grieve who had negotiated with the whips during various tight votes but had ended up with fewer concessions than hardline Eurosceptics, who had stuck to “it’s my way or the highway”.
“There’s no point campaigning for a meaningful vote and then not actually using it. We’ve actually been pretty reasonable over recent months, but we’re at the end of the road now. It’s all been building up to this moment. At some stage you’ve got to nail your colours to the mast,” one senior Tory said.
However, the focus of the group will be on action around the vote rather than copying the ERG’s public strategy of writing critical letters or hosting events.
Clarke hinted at the threat from remain-backing Tories during an exchange with the prime minister in the Commons on Wednesday. “The maths makes it obvious that a majority can only be obtained if the agreement retains the support of the pro-European Conservative backbenchers in this House and also wins the support of a significant number of Labour pro-European backbenchers on the other side of the House ... which would reveal that the hardline Eurosceptic views of the Bennites on the Labour frontbench and the rightwing nationalists in our party are a minority in this parliament,” he said.
There is no formal coordination with Labour MPs, who are expected to be whipped to oppose the government’s deal when it is put to parliament. It is now unlikely that any deal will be approved at the forthcoming October summit of EU leaders, which means that the next chance for negotiations to conclude would be at an expected emergency EU summit in November.