Up to 80 Conservative MPs are reportedly set to vote against the Prime Minister’s Chequers plan, according to the former Brexit minister Steve Baker, who says the PM is risking a ‘catastrophic split’.
The warning comes as senior Tories voiced outrage over Boris Johnson’s ‘disgusting’ comments about the PM, in which he accused the prime minister of having ”wrapped a suicide vest” around Britain
Mr Baker, who quit as a Brexit minister in protest over Chequers, said that Mrs May faces “a massive problem” at the Birmingham gathering because of the scale of opposition to Chequers among grassroots members.
But Downing Street has insisted there is no alternative to the current position. A spokesman said: “Chequers is the only plan on the table which will deliver on the will of the British people while avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland.
“The Prime Minister is working hard to secure a deal and hopes all MPs will be able to support it.”
With just 200 days to go to the scheduled date of Brexit, Mr Baker said the prime minister would lack credibility with Brussels negotiators if she tried to press ahead with the blueprint agreed at her country residence in July without the backing of her party.
He said 80 or more Tory MPs are ready to vote it down in the House of Commons.
“When negotiating, the prime minister needs to demonstrate her intent and also her power to deliver,” Mr Baker told the Press Association.
“If we come out of conference with her hoping to get Chequers through on the back of Labour votes, I think the EU negotiators would probably understand that if that were done, the Tory party would suffer the catastrophic split which thus far we have managed to avoid.”
Mr Baker stressed that he was not advocating a change in leadership and said Tory critics of Chequers “do not want to be in a position of conflict with our own prime minister” and would give her “absolutely every support” in forging a free trade deal.
“Time is running awfully short for anyone who thinks a leadership contest and a general election is a good idea,” said the Wycombe MP.
Mr Baker’s comments came after Tory MPs were also split over the continued interventions of Boris Johnson.
In his latest attack on the Chequers deal, the former foreign secretary used a column in the Mail on Sunday to call it a “suicide vest” around the UK, saying Brussels had the detonator in its hands.
Home secretary Sajid Javid said: “I think there are much better ways to articulate your differences.”
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that politicians should use “measured language”.
Alan Duncan, a foreign minister who worked in Mr Johnson’s team for two years, wrote on Twitter: “For Boris to say the PM’s view is like that of a suicide bomber is too much. This marks one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics.”
For Boris to say that the PM’s view is like that of a suicide bomber is too much. This marks one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics. I’m sorry, but this is the political end of Boris Johnson. If it isn’t now, I will make sure it is later. #neverfittogovern https://t.co/rdI0FWQhbi
— Sir Alan Duncan MP (@AlanDuncanMP) September 8, 2018
Mr Johnson remains a divisive figure, but there are many Tories, including those in the ERG, who would like to see him lead the UK through Brexit.
Mr Baker said a Chequers deal would leave the UK “shackled” to adopting new rules and regulations introduced by Brussels. He said Mrs May should seek an FTA under the terms already placed on the table by European Council president Donald Tusk in March.
As well as tariff-free trade in goods and services, this deal – often referred to as Canada-plus – would offer co-operation in areas such as security, energy and culture, he said.
If this could not be achieved in time for Brexit Day, he said, it would be possible to leave without a deal and negotiate a trade agreement as an independent nation.
Mr Baker said: “What we need out of conference is a new resolve that these are the choices before us.”
Mr Baker said that the ERG had decided to hold back on publication of its detailed plan for the future relationship, in order to focus on the Irish border issue, which he said was the “key to the gate” to a satisfactory agreement.
He declined to give details of proposals on the border, but said that resolving the issue was “a matter of political and administrative will” and there would be “no single magic bullet”.