Tory MPs' hard Brexit letter to May described as 'ransom note'

Anushka Asthana Political editor
Theresa May will host a meeting of her Brexit ‘war cabinet’ on Thursday. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/PA

More than 60 backbench Conservative MPs have sent Theresa May a list of hard Brexit demands ahead of a crunch meeting, triggering a furious reaction from colleagues who branded the letter a “ransom note”.

As dozens of members of the party’s European Research Group added their names to the correspondence setting out their expectations for Brexit with “full regulatory autonomy”, other Tory politicians hit back.

Nicky Morgan, an advocate for a soft Brexit who chairs the Treasury select committee, said: “This isn’t a letter, it is a ransom note. The ERG clearly think they have the prime minister as their hostage.”

The letter was sent to May as well as the Brexit secretary, David Davis, the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, and the chief whip, Julian Smith, amid efforts to agree within cabinet what the UK will ask for in a future trading relationship.

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May will lead Thursday’s meeting of her inner group of ministers, dubbed the “Brexit war cabinet”, at her country residence Chequers to hammer out what the UK will ask for in negotiations with the European commission.

But she knows she is under intense pressure from the ERG, with the 62 signatories enough to force a leadership contest if they are unhappy with the government’s progress on Brexit.

The group promise their “continued, strong backing” for the vision of leaving the EU set out by the prime minister in her Lancaster House speech in January last year, but add a list of suggestion about how she could maintain those guarantees.

Among the demands are that Britain must:

  • Have full regulatory autonomy, with the ability to change laws and rules after exiting the EU, when it should not longer be a “rule-taker”.
  • Only accept an implementation period if the final deal is fully negotiated and ensure that phase is governed by World Trade Organisation principles.
  • Ensure that new trade deals with third countries can be negotiated immediately after the UK’s departure from the European bloc.

In the letter, which comes as the prime minister grapples to achieve agreement between high profile Brexiters such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and former remainers Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd, the signatories say: “We share your view that free trade lowers prices, creates jobs and economic growth and that leaving the European Union will create opportunities for freer trade with many more countries around the world.

“We also agree with you that we can only grasp those opportunities if we can negotiate trade deals with as many other countries as possible, which we will be legally barred from doing if we remain inside the EU customs union and single market.”

Their demands about transition fly in the face of government efforts to secure a standstill period in which the EU would expect the UK to maintain all the rules governing the bloc.

Sam Lowe, a trade expert at the Centre for European Reform, told the Guardian: “A standstill transition is in everyone’s interest and absolutely essential if the government is serious about negotiating a mutually beneficial ongoing relationship between the EU and UK. In trying to undermine that the ERG are asking the government to sacrifice the economy on the altar of ideology.”

The letter comes after David Davis set out the government’s plans to secure a deal in which the UK would be outside the customs union and single market but would seek to maintain mutual recognition of regulations.

Writing in the Guardian, Morgan welcomed Davis’s intervention and said it set a clear direction of travel. “Full marks to Davis for ... putting an end to the dreams of some that Brexit would herald some low or minimal regulatory nirvana,” she wrote.

Morgan is pairing up with the Labour chair of the home affairs select committee, Yvette Cooper, for an event in parliament with the CBI on Wednesday where they will warn of the risks for Britain if it fails to secure a strong customs arrangement after Brexit.

There have been growing voices on both sides of the House of Commons for the UK to seek the closest possible relationship, but the ERG letter, initially leaked to the Times, shows they are determined to block such a move.

Paul Blomfield, a shadow Brexit minister said: “This letter exposes the deep divisions that run through the heart of this Tory government.

“Theresa May cannot deliver the Brexit deal Britain needs. She is too weak to face down the fanatics in her own party and to deliver a final deal that protects jobs and the economy.”

The Labour MP Chris Leslie, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign, said the ERG believed they could “dictate government policy and they are brazenly advocating the hardest of hard Brexits”.

A Downing Street source said: “We welcome contributions from across the party.”