Theresa May is facing a Commons showdown with Tory Brexiteers determined to force her to abandon her controversial blueprint for leaving the European Union.
Amid rising backbench anger, MPs are set to vote on Monday on a series of Commons amendments intended to wreck her Chequers plan for a ‘common rule book’ covering a new ‘UK-EU free trade area’.
Although the measures are unlikely to pass in the absence of Labour support, it could prove an opportunity for a show of strength by the rebels intended to pressurise her into retreat.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG), played down suggestions over the weekend they were seeking to topple the prime minister, saying she still had time to change course.
However, the danger to the prime minister was underlined by the disclosure that Brexiteers had set up a Whatsapp group to co-ordinate voting tactics, organised by ex-Brexit minister Steve Baker, who quit over the Chequers plan.
The Daily Telegraph reported more than 100 MPs had joined the group – more than double the 48 needed to submit letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister to force a leadership contest.
Jacob Rees-Mogg said ERG members would be meeting ahead of the Commons debate and votes on the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill – or Customs Bill as it is more generally referred to – when the level of support for the amendments would become clearer.
‘I’ve put down some amendments and we’ll see what support they get,’ he said on Sunday. ‘We’ll have an idea of the numbers, I suppose, at 10 o’clock on Monday evening.’
The threat from the Brexiteers is not the only danger facing May, with pro-EU Tories tabling amendments of their own to the Customs Bill and the Trade Bill – which returns to the Commons on Tuesday – which would keep Britain in a customs union with the EU.
It was unclear whether they will actually press them to a vote after some pro-EU MPs backed Mrs May’s Chequers plan and EU white paper.
Business Secretary Greg Clark warned Tory would-be rebels against supporting amendments tabled by arch-Brexiteers, saying they risked harming the country’s ability to trade after leaving the European Union.
He told Today: ‘The amendments are to a Bill that is designed to prepare for the world after Brexit, to be able to establish new customs regime that will be necessary.
‘So I would hope and expect that those of my colleagues that want to get on with Brexit would recognise that this Bill is essential.’