Johnson widens breach in Tory Eurosceptic ranks

Boris Johnson has signalled he could back Theresa May’s Brexit deal, in a further sign that opposition from Tory Eurosceptics is starting to crumble as they come to accept that their project is in danger.

Mr Johnson said there was now an “appreciable risk” that Brexit might not happen at all unless MPs backed Mrs May’s “pseudo-Brexit”. His comments at a Daily Telegraph event drew cries of: “No, Boris”.

Mr Johnson insisted “I’m not there yet” but his remarks were greeted with relief in Downing Street. Earlier Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Tory European Research Group, indicated he could back the deal, rather than risk losing Brexit.

Mrs May is seeking to hold a third “meaningful vote” on her withdrawal agreement on Thursday or possibly on Friday; she is discussing with senior Tories setting a timetable for her resignation in a desperate attempt to drive her deal over the line.

The UK prime minister will first face an unprecedented challenge on Wednesday as MPs seize control of the Commons timetable to test support for a series of alternatives to her exit deal, twice heavily defeated in the Commons.

One pro-EU minister said “up to 20” ministers could resign if the government whips the indicative votes. But despite the prospect of rebellions and the possibility of resignations, Mrs May still believes she can emerge from the chaos with her deal intact.

MPs’ decision to hold indicative votes on Wednesday to test Commons support for alternative, generally softer forms of Brexit is increasing pressure on Tory Eurosceptics to back the prime minister’s agreement.

But many ERG members are taking a harder line than Mr Johnson and Mr Rees-Mogg.

The group’s officials estimated Mr Rees-Mogg’s conversion would bring over no more than 30 of the group’s estimated 80 MPs while at least 20 were unlikely to back down in any circumstances. The prime minister needs to win support from most of the group’s members if she is to have any chance of passing her deal.

“Regardless of Jacob’s intervention, it’s still not looking as though she will have the numbers,” said one member of the ERG. “I’m not going to change my mind.”

There were also conflicting signals from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, whose 10 MPs are also vital to Mrs May’s hopes but have different objections to her deal than the ERG.

Sammy Wilson, the Northern Irish party’s Brexit spokesman, said a one-year delay of Brexit would be a “better strategy” than passing Mrs May’s deal.

However, DUP insiders said Mr Wilson was not articulating the view of the party and an official spokesman said its position had not changed.

Such obstacles have left Mrs May preparing to offer a timetable for her resignation later this year as the price for bringing the rest of the Conservative Eurosceptic MPs on board.

Julian Smith, the chief whip, has already told Mrs May that, unless she offers to quit, her deal will be sunk. Tim Loughton, a former minister, told the BBC yesterday that the prime minister had reached “the endgame”.

“If she can get a deal through, if she can leave having achieved that deal and pass on the baton to somebody else to negotiate, then I think she can leave with her head held high,” he said.

Mrs May is working with Iain Duncan Smith, the Eurosceptic former Tory leader, on the sensitive choreography around her intended departure; the two held preliminary private talks at Chequers on Sunday.

Under the plan, Mrs May would signal her intention to stand aside but would only make a formal announcement when — or if — the ERG kept its side of the promise and the deal was passed.

However, Tory Eurosceptics are doubtful. “There’s not a lot of trust,” said one senior Tory MP, who feared the prime minister might try to capitalise on an unexpected success and stay on in Downing Street.

“Even if she announces she’s going, even if somehow the DUP back it, even when you minimise the list of Conservative rebels and even when you chuck in the most ridiculously crazy list of Labour ‘maybes’, the numbers still fall short,” added the ERG member.

MPs in the Eurosceptic group have signalled they would block the government’s withdrawal agreement bill — required to put Brexit into law — if Mrs May did not follow through with a resignation promise. “It’s a blunt instrument, but it’s there,” said one MP.

Separately, Mrs May will table a statutory instrument today moving Britain’s exit date from March 29 — as agreed at the European Council of EU leaders last week — raising the prospect of another rebellion.

Many Tory whips oppose any delay to Brexit, raising the prospect that if Mrs May insisted that her government backs the measure she could find half of her whips office resigning in protest.

Meanwhile, Labour yesterday rejected one Brexit manoeuvre which it claimed was being considered by Mrs May: holding a vote simply on the EU withdrawal agreement while splitting off the associated non-binding declaration on future relations.

The EU had demanded that Mrs May win approval for just the withdrawal agreement this week if Britain is to secure an extension of Brexit until May 22; otherwise the new exit date would be set at April 12.

Jeremy Corbyn’s office said Mrs May’s office raised the idea with the Labour leader this week but the “polite” answer was no.

“We have two concerns about the withdrawal agreement: the first is the backstop and the second is that we could not vote for a Brexit where we have no idea what it is, a blindfold Brexit,” said a spokesman.


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