Tory MPs criticise Brexiteers' letter to Theresa May

Prime minister Theresa May

Tory MPs have criticised a letter sent by Brexiteer colleagues in the hardline European Research Group aimed at piling pressure on Theresa May.

Antoinette Sandbach said the views of the group of "hardline Brexiteers" were in marked contrast to the "vast majority" of her colleagues, while Vicky Ford said the letter risked tying the prime minister's hands.

Ms Sandbach, leading a debate in Westminster Hall, also said that remaining part of the European Economic Area would be a "bold step" towards preserving the UK's prosperity and "should be the plan B for government" as it negotiated Brexit.

A letter sent to Mrs May by 62 Conservative Brexiteers in the Hard Brexit-supporting European Research Group outlined a series of demands in talks, such as ensuring the UK retains "full regulatory autonomy" after it leaves the EU.

Ms Sandbach, who led the debate on alternatives to a no-deal outcome, said: "We were promised a smooth and simple exit from the EU and instead we have complexity and the risk of chaos.

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"It is even more important now in the light of the leaked letter from a small minority of my colleagues.

"These hardline Brexiteers have a very strange view of what WTO [World Trade Organisation] rules or terms would mean, and this is in marked contrast to the views of the vast majority of my colleagues who would prefer to assess all the options available."

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Chelmsford MP Ms Ford, a former MEP, said: "Instead of helping the prime minister, it seeks to tie her hands.

"I do genuinely believe that some of the people who put their names to that letter didn't fully understand the consequences it could have, particularly the limitations and restrictions they would have on an implementation period, making it much more difficult to have a smooth bridge between where we are today and towards that deep and special partnership.

"Let me make it clear - no deal is not an attractive deal."

Crashing out with no deal would lead to a reduction of EU trade of between 40% to 60%, Ms Sandbach said, with the impact of new tariffs on trade "hugely damaging" and leading to food price rises.

She added that it was important to assess the alternatives and re-joining the European Economic Area (EEA) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) offered a "permanent safe harbour".

Ms Sandbach said: "It should be the plan B for government.

"We should be looking at this option as a very realistic alternative and I cannot understand why, when we talk about a no-deal Brexit, we are only discussing WTO rules when this eminently sensible common-sense option that helps preserve economic prosperity in this country but delivers our leaving the political institutions of the EU is not being treated with more seriousness by the government."

A number of Tory backbenchers endorsed the EEA/EFTA model, with former attorney general Dominic Grieve saying: "To simply live in the past as to what people's views were in the middle of 2016 is to fly in the face of the reality of the evolving picture at a European level and what we can in practice achieve that is best for our country."

Senior Conservative backbencher and Hard Brexiteer Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) called Ms Sandbach's comments a "very fear-based analysis of Brexit".

Brexit Minister Suella Fernandes said the government's preferred objective was creating a bespoke partnership with the EU, and leaving without a deal was a "very unlikely scenario".

She said: "The government is confident that we can negotiate a close relationship with the EU that is mutually beneficial to both the UK and the EU.

"Alternatives such as EFTA, such as CETA [Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement] are not outcomes that the UK is pursuing."

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