Tories in crisis over Chequers
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The Conservatives risk a 'catastrophic split' unless the prime minister dumps her Chequers plan, according to a leading Brexiteer.
Steve Baker, who quit as a Brexit minister over Chequers, is aiming to rally the Brexit wing of the Tories in a bid to scupper Theresa May's plan at conference at the end of this month.
Instead he wants the party to back a Free Trade Agreement solution to Britain's future relations with the EU.
The former chairman of the Eurosceptic European Research Group warned that May faces 'a massive problem' at the Birmingham gathering because of the scale of opposition to Chequers among grassroots members.
The ERG aims to build momentum behind the FTA option ahead of conference by publishing proposals to resolve the issue of the Northern Irish border.
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With just 200 days to go to the scheduled date of Brexit, he said that the PM would lack credibility with Brussels negotiators if she tried to press ahead with the blueprint agreed at her country residence in July without the backing of her party and with 80 or more Tory MPs ready to vote it down in the Commons.
'When negotiating, the prime minister needs to demonstrate her intent and also her power to deliver,' Baker said.
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'If we come out of conference with her hoping to get Chequers through on the back of Labour votes, I think the EU negotiators would probably understand that if that were done, the Tory party would suffer the catastrophic split which thus far we have managed to avoid.'
But Baker claimed he was not advocating a change in leadership and said Tory critics of Chequers 'do not want to be in a position of conflict with our own prime minister' and would give her 'absolutely every support' in forging a free trade deal.
'Time is running awfully short for anyone who thinks a leadership contest and a general election is a good idea,' he added.
But he said that, with Labour indicating it will vote against May's Brexit white paper package, it would be 'fanciful' to expect her to secure parliamentary approval for Chequers.
'We are reaching the point now where it is extremely difficult to see how we can rescue the Conservative Party from a catastrophic split if the Chequers proposals are carried forward,' he said.
But justice secretary David Gauke urged the Conservative Party to rally behind the Chequers plan.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: 'There is an overwhelming majority within the Conservative Party that we respect the referendum result, that we implement it in such a way as to respect the integrity of the United Kingdom and the Good Friday Agreement and ensure that we are in a strong position to grow the economy in the years ahead.
'There isn't an alternative credible plan out there. I think that it is absolutely right that the Cabinet and the parliamentary party backs the prime minister. In challenging circumstances she is the right person to deliver the right deal for this country.'
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