Brexiteers ramped up the pressure on Theresa May today by warning the government could collapse unless she sticks to red lines in talks with the EU.
Senior Tories have delivered a stark message to the PM ahead of a crunch Cabinet summit at her Chequers residence this week.
Mrs May has been struggling to hold her party together amid increasingly bitter infighting between Eurosceptic and Remainer factions.
UK negotiators have warned that there are effectively just six weeks left to strike a Brexit deal – as Eurocrats go on holiday all summer. But ministers are still deeply split between those who want to keep closely bound to the EU, and those who want a clean break.
Downing Street is believed to be preparing a compromise package that it hopes can bridge the divide and save Mrs May from disaster.
However, ambitious ministers such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt have been on manoeuvres in case dramatic failure sparks a leadership contest.
Jacob Rees-Mogg – who heads the Eurosceptic bloc of Tory backbenchers and is also tipped as a potential successor to Mrs May – underlined the scale of the threat today as he insisted the premier risked turning a ‘once-proud country’ to a ‘tremulous state that sees Brexit asmere damage limitation’.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Mr Rees-Mogg warned the PM she was in danger of splitting the party like Sir Robert Peel, who plunged it into the political wilderness for nearly three decades following bitter divisions over trade reforms.
The chairman of the European Research Group of Brexit-backing Tories
said: ‘Theresa May must stand firm for what she herself has promised.
‘One former Tory leader, Sir Robert Peel, decided to break his manifesto pledge and passed legislation with the majority of his party voting the other way.
‘This left the Conservatives out of office for 28 years.
‘At least he did so for a policy that works. At Chequers (Mrs May) must stick to her righteous cause and deliver what she has said she would, she must use her undoubted grace to persevere.’
As the briefing war escalated, it has emerged that the PM’s chief Brexit official told ministers they have no chance of striking a bespoke trade deal with Brussels.
Briefing Cabinet ministers ahead of the Chequers talks, Oliver Robbins is said to have painted a bleak picture of the situation.
A source told The Times they came out of the meeting thinking ‘we were even more screwed than we were before’.
Business Secretary Greg Clark and Commons leader Andrea Leadsom both refused to rule out an extension to transition arrangements in the face of demands from Tory backbenchers for the timetable to be maintained.
Mr Clark said the decision must be ‘guided by the facts and the evidence’ and Mrs Leadsom said December 2020 was not a ‘magical date’.
Mrs May will bring together her Cabinet at her country residence to thrash out details of a white paper setting out the UK’s plans for areas such as trade.
Brexiteers oppose the PM’s favoured option of a customs partnership with the EU, which would see the UK collect tariffs set by the EU customs union on goods entering the country on behalf of the bloc.
Their ‘max fac’ alternative would, rather than scrapping customs checks, uses technology to minimise the need for them.
Both options have been dismissed by the EU. James Brokenshire said there was ‘no doubt that there is strong views on either side’ over Brexit in Cabinet but insisted he was ‘confident’ Mrs May’s top team could reach an agreement at the meeting.
The Communities Secretary said the Government was planning for ‘all eventualities’.
The Prime Minister will update MPs in a statement later following summit in Brussels last week.