Hardline Conservative Eurosceptics have said they will vote for Theresa May’s Brexit deal if she names her departure date as UK prime minister.
Dozens of anti-EU MPs want to take control of the Tory party so they can steer the second phase of Brexit negotiations, the future UK-EU economic relationship, away from the close partnership envisaged by Mrs May.
“If she gets small changes and agrees to leave she’ll get it through,” one member of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs said, referring to Mrs May’s Brexit deal. “I don’t believe there have been any official approaches, but it’s true that’s our position.”
If Britain leaves the EU with a deal on March 29, the next phase of negotiations would begin almost immediately and could last until the end of the 21-month transition period. ERG members said they would like Mrs May to leave well before the end of this year.
One Tory Brexiter said any such demands could form “part of a plan to install Boris Johnson as leader”.
The idea of seeing Mr Johnson or another Tory Brexiter lead those sensitive talks with the EU will alarm many moderate Conservatives, who are likely to urge Mrs May to stay on in Downing Street to oversee the negotiations.
Although Mrs May’s position appears highly vulnerable, the fear among moderate Tory MPs of the party being taken over hardline Eurosceptics and being plunged into a new civil war has propped her up in the past, notably after the botched 2017 election and December’s confidence vote.
Mrs May’s allies say the prime minister has no intention of offering a post-dated resignation to Tory Eurosceptics ahead of this month’s “meaningful vote” in parliament on her Brexit deal, arguing that it was not the issue at hand.
“Ultimately these guys, like everyone else in parliament, has to face up to a very big decision: do you back this deal or not?” said one. “That is the choice — the prime minister’s position is not part of the equation.”
Mrs May’s cabinet is divided, meaning it is unlikely that senior ministers will co-ordinate to try to oust her — as happened to Margaret Thatcher in 1990.
Instead, a senior backbencher could relay the message to Mrs May. “It’d have to be Graham Brady or someone like that,” said one Tory minister.
Another minister said: “If that’s what the ERG want, the party won’t be able to govern. The whole thing will collapse [in a leadership election].”
Although Mrs May cannot be challenged under party rules until December, MPs could submit letters of no confidence before then, undermining the prime minister’s position. “Imagine if 100 letters went in, or 150,” the minister said.
One Europhile MP said they couldn’t imagine Mrs May “voluntarily” leaving the second part of the negotiations to the hardline wing of her party. Another added: “It’s true it’s what the ERG want, but it’s not just them. We are all fed up with her.”
Questioned on whether she was “personally committed” to negotiating the second phase of the Brexit negotiations, Mrs May told journalists last Sunday: “There is still a domestic agenda I want to get on with.”
Eurosceptics expressed their concern this week over Mrs May’s decision to allow Brexit to be delayed if MPs fail to back her revised deal later this month.
On Wednesday night more than 100 Conservative MPs refused to vote for a parliamentary amendment tabled by Labour’s Yvette Cooper — which restated the prime minister’s plan to consult MPs on a no-deal Brexit or delaying departure if her own deal is rejected.
But while more than 80 abstained, only 20 Tories voted against the government-backed amendment.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has reportedly told EU ambassadors that no progress has been made during this week’s Brexit talks.
However, Downing Street insiders insist they can win a vote on a revised deal, which will be held by March 12.
Mrs May’s allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party are believed to hold the key to her deal being passed.
One senior member of the ERG said they would back the deal if she wins the support of the DUP’s 10 MPs, who now have a “lower bar” for backing the deal than the ERG’s own hardline members.
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