Senior Conservatives have urged Rishi Sunak to ignore “shrill” hardliners in his own party over new post-Brexit arrangements with the European Union, warning that failure risks ruining the party’s slim election chances.
As anger mounts among Brexiteers, the prime minister has been told that ministers could resign over any deal. But senior Tories urged Mr Sunak to call their bluff and press ahead.
Health minister Maria Caulfield, who herself quit Theresa May’s frontbench over her Brexit plan, urged Tory MPs to “support the prime minister”.
And Tobias Ellwood, a former minister who chairs the Commons defence committee, told The Independent: “Allowing this to drag on, unresolved, shows how increasingly out of touch we look on both sides in the Irish Sea.
“The prime minister should ignore the shrill voices that opine after a model of Brexit that a growing population can no longer relate to and will punish us at the next election if we don’t moderate our now-dated stance.”
Brexiteers say they are prepared to force a showdown vote in parliament on any agreement between the EU and the UK.
The prime minister, who does not have to offer MPs a vote, could be forced to rely on Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party for votes.
But one former cabinet minister told The Independent: “What matters is getting [the NI protocol] resolved. Because if it is not resolved that plays into Labour’s hands. Labour will say: ‘Look, it can’t be resolved until there is a change of government’.”
He also hit out at Tory MPs in the Brexiteer European Research Group (ERG), saying they had had an “undue influence in recent years. I don’t know why they have been indulged like they have”.
Another Tory MP and senior Sunak supporter said he “100 per cent” agreed that failing to forge a deal would strengthen Labour’s position – urging the PM to ignore the ERG. They said: “This is just some hardliners bluffing. They are tiny in numbers and most MPs remain behind the prime minister.”
In a new rift within the party, former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland, who had previously defended the Northern Ireland protocol bill, said he no longer believed it had legal justification.
The controversial plans to unilaterally tear up the Northern Ireland protocol had been formulated during a deadlock in negotiations between the EU and the UK, which was no longer the case, he said.
On Monday, home secretary Suella Braverman hinted at a potential split in the cabinet on the issue as she warned Mr Sunak not to ditch the protocol bill in return for a Brexit deal. At the weekend, a source close to former prime minister Boris Johnson said that he believed “it would be a great mistake to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill”.
As Brexiteer anger grew, Mr Sunak’s former cabinet colleague Jacob Rees-Mogg accused him of falling into the same trap as Theresa May on the issue.
He likened the prime minister’s tactics to that of his predecessor, who was brought down by Tory MPs after failing to get her own Brexit deal through parliament.
Mr Rees-Mogg accused Mr Sunak of briefing details of the planned deal before convincing arch-Brexiteers in his own party.
“I don’t know why so much political capital has been spent on something without getting the DUP and the ERG on side first,” he told his ConservativeHome podcast.
He added: “This is very similar to what happened with Theresa May. So a story would appear in The Times and Downing Street would say, ‘No, this isn’t quite right, it isn’t at all right’.”
“And then a week or two would go by and it would turn out to be completely right and they would hope that people would just conveniently fall in behind the announced policy,” he added.
Meanwhile, former Conservative leader Lord Hague warned “most voters want neither a “Remainer plot” nor Brexit purity” and “it would be a great mistake for the DUP and a minority of Tories to ignore that national desire”.
In a column in The Times, he added that to try to wreck the deal “would be a huge error”.
“For Conservatives it would mean they are incapable of putting Brexit arguments behind them, adding to Labour’s attacks at the next election and steadily discrediting the entire project of leaving the EU,” he said.