Hardcore Brexiteers have vowed they will not budge on the prime minister’s Chequers plan.
Former minister Steve Baker – who has released a series of bizarre videos urging MPs to ‘chuck Chequers’ while standing in a field – said as many as 80 Conservatives would be prepared to oppose Theresa May if her deal with the EU kept Britain too closely aligned to it.
In the first of five short films he claims British politics resembles ‘the closing scenes of a Tarantino movie’ before adding: ‘What are we trying to achieve? In a word – freedom.’
Baker, a leading figure in the hardline Brexit-backing European Research Group, told BBC Radio 4’s Today he was expecting the Tory whips to begin pressuring the rebels now that MPs have returned to Westminster after conference season. But he was adamant that at least half of them would stand firm.
He said the ERG ‘will not tolerate a half-in, half-out Brexit’ after reports that May hopes to break the deadlock over the Irish border by keeping the EU’s present customs arrangements beyond when the transition period is due to end in December 2020.
If 40 Tories rebelled it would leave a Brexit deal at serious risk of failing to gain parliamentary approval, with the prime minister needing Labour votes to get it through.
Baker, a former Brexit minister, said: ‘I always try to be accurate on the numbers rather than have a bluff to be called. We are in a position where, as we roll forward, colleagues will not tolerate a half-in, half-out Brexit.
‘I did a concrete canvas of colleagues when it was amendments to legislation, and came up with the number of nearly 80.
‘Of course the government are going to whip this vote extremely hard, but what I would say is that the whips would be doing incredibly well if they were to halve the numbers, and my estimate is that there are at least 40 colleagues who are not going to accept a half-in, half-out Chequers deal or indeed a backstop that leaves us in the internal market and the Customs Union, come what may.’
His comments came as the government’s allies in the Democratic Unionist Party headed to Brussels for their own talks with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
On the eve of the meeting, DUP leader Arlene Foster set out the party’s red lines, saying that any border effectively being drawn in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Britain would be ‘catastrophic’.
The PM’s spokesman said May had always made clear that any joint customs arrangements with the EU would be ‘temporary’, and stressed that this remained the case.
May has also been urged to ‘evolve’ her deal into a free trade deal that the whole party can support.
Mark Harper, who was a Home Office minister during May’s tenure in the department and later chief whip, told the Telegraph that relying on Labour rebels would not work, saying: ‘We are going to have to carry this deal on our own benches. If you’re the prime minister, you do have to listen to colleagues.’