Theresa May has cut short her cabinet ministers’ Christmas break, summoning them to a meeting to discuss a no-deal Brexit on January 2, as the UK prime minister tries to ramp up pressure on her critics.
Tory officials have expressed growing confidence that Mrs May’s Brexit deal will pass the House of Commons next month, although they see it as an attritional struggle that may involve the bill being defeated on the first and even second attempt.
The prime minister pulled the so-called meaningful vote two weeks ago, fearing a heavy defeat by MPs. Her tactics now hinge on winning over the Democratic Unionist party and maximising the threat of a no-deal Brexit.
Michael Gove, environment secretary, is said by allies to be “petrified” of a disorderly no deal, which he believes could leave Britain with severe food shortages, if the Dover-Calais route becomes blocked.
Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, will lead the cabinet meeting on no-deal planning on January 2, the week before debates begin in the Commons. One minister described the meeting as “all about show really. It’s to prove that we are pulling out the stops to prepare for the worst”.
Mrs May believes that the DUP are the key to winning parliamentary approval for her deal. Downing Street remains hopeful that Arlene Foster’s party can be won over by new concessions from Brussels on the Irish backstop, probably in the form of a separate legal document to the withdrawal deal. Olly Robbins, Mrs May’s chief Brexit adviser, was in Brussels this week for talks.
A European Commission spokesman said that there was no further negotiation because the withdrawal agreement had been agreed.
“It’s like dominoes,” said one ally of the prime minister. “If we can bring the DUP on board, then some of our lot will follow.” The DUP has only 10 MPs, whereas as many as 110 Tory Eurosceptics had said they would vote against the deal last month.
Mrs May reset relations with Mrs Foster and Nigel Dodds, deputy DUP leader, at a meeting this month when she admitted that she had allowed relations with her parliamentary allies to deteriorate badly.
Julian Smith, the chief whip, and Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary who led the 2017 alliance negotiations with the DUP, were also pictured having a drink with Mr Dodds last week.
Treasury officials despair at the plans to spend £4.2bn preparing for Brexit, including spending money on contingency plans that might never be needed. One said: “That sort of money would buy a lot of nurses.”
However, Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons who has played down fears of a no-deal Brexit, underlined that MPs could not block a no-deal Brexit simply by voting against it. She told the Sunday Telegraph: “In order to avoid a no-deal Brexit, parliament does need to vote for a deal.”
If the UK does leave the EU without a deal, the government estimates that 280,000 of the more than 3m Britons residing in the bloc will return.
Their arrival would almost certainly strain the finances of UK public services. If as few as 50,000 extra pensioners claim winter fuel allowance, that alone would cost the Department of Work and Pensions £15m. That is equivalent to the total no-deal funding allocated to the department so far.
Many Britons resident abroad are also currently renting out their properties in the UK, raising the question of what would happen to their current tenants.
Separately, pro-Remain Labour MPs hit out at their party leader Jeremy Corbyn, after he said that Labour would continue with Brexit if it won a snap general election. Mr Corbyn told the Guardian newspaper that he planned to negotiate a new customs union with the EU, and restated his objections to the state aid rules that form part of the bloc’s single market.
“Corbyn has doubled down on the fantasy of renegotiating better terms than the Tories,” said Mike Gapes, Labour MP for Ilford South.
Additional reporting by Rochelle Toplensky in Brussels
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