Silent majority of Tory MPs favour sensible Brexit, says May's former deputy

PUBLISHED: 15:14 31 May 2018 | UPDATED: 15:14 31 May 2018

Damian Green and Theresa May in happier times

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A "silent majority" among Conservative MPs wants a "sensible" Brexit which minimises disruption to British business, Theresa May's former deputy Damian Green has said.

Along with Amber Rudd and Justine Greening, Mr Green met the prime minister yesterday to assure her that the bulk of her parliamentary party will back compromise with Brussels in Brexit negotiations.

The trio of former Cabinet ministers is understood to have urged Mrs May to ignore Brexit extremists and pursue a course which keeps the UK closely aligned with the EU's single market and customs union.

Their intervention comes amid stalemate in the government's efforts to devise a new customs arrangement for the Irish border, with mounting expectations that Mrs May will ask for continued participation in the EU's customs union until a solution can be found.

Committed Tory Eurosceptics like the chair of the European Research Group Jacob Rees-Mogg have warned that continued customs union membership would be unacceptable, while Remain backers like Anna Soubry have fought a noisy campaign to keep the UK inside.

But Mr Green told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "There's a danger of assuming that those who shout the loudest represent the most.

"I think there is a silent majority within the parliamentary party that wants Brexit, that accepts that Brexit is going to happen, but wants it to be a pragmatic and sensible Brexit, which means above all that there's no disruption, if we can achieve that."

The former head of Mrs May's policy unit, George Freeman, agreed, telling the programme: "The silent majority of the Conservative parliamentary party... support the prime minister in negotiating a deal where we have as frictionless and cost-free access to the European market as we can negotiate and the freedom to do our own deals with emerging economies."

Mr Freeman said that the mood among Tory MPs was that the balance of Britain's interest lay in nurturing existing markets rather than staking its future prosperity on unproven new trade deals.

"If we see them and begin to see what they could be worth, then the mood shifts," he said. "But right now, the vast majority of Conservative MPs want to deliver a prosperity Brexit."

Former minister Stephen Hammond, who has tabled amendments to keep open the possibility of membership of the European Free Trade Association, said that Tory Europhiles were still "a long way away" from rebelling over customs union membership.

But he told World at One: "I am trying to work with the government, as a number of others are, to make sure that we can get what the prime minister wants, which is frictionless trade. We need to start concentrating on the needs of British industry.

"Therefore if in the short term we need a longer period in the customs union to sort out our new customs arrangements, that's what the government should do."

But hardcore Brexiteer Peter Bone warned that any solution must reflect the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU.

"There are certain things that we have compromised enough on to get agreement and we really can't go any further on those," said Mr Bone.

"We shouldn't be listening to people who shout the loudest. We should be talking to everyone and trying to create an agreement that everyone can support, but that has to be based on what the British people voted for."

Mr Green, who quit as first secretary of state in December, played down any suggestion that divisions over Brexit put Mrs May's position in peril.

The prime minister would "certainly" survive any vote of no confidence forced by disgruntled backbenchers, he said.

But he stressed: "The vast majority of my colleagues - even those who have been very strongly campaigning for Brexit - recognise that this is absolutely not the time to do that sort of thing."

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