Cabinet considers May’s Brexit deal as leadership battle lines are drawn
Ministers will consider compromises made in Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill – but some of those around the table have their eyes on her job.
Theresa May will try to secure Cabinet support for a “bold offer” to MPs across the Commons to finally win backing for her Brexit deal.
The Prime Minister’s senior ministers will consider the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) against the backdrop of the looming contest to replace her.
In a sign of the divisions within the party, Chancellor Philip Hammond will use a major speech on Tuesday night to deliver a rebuke to would-be leaders considering a no-deal Brexit.
In remarks set to raise Tory tensions on EU withdrawal, the Chancellor will claim supporters of leaving the bloc without an exit agreement are trying to “hijack” the result of the referendum.
But Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, who has said she could stand in the contest to replace Mrs May, insisted the UK had to be prepared to walk away without a Brexit deal.
The Prime Minister’s efforts to get her Brexit deal through hinge on a package of measures contained in the WAB, which is due to be considered by MPs in early June.
Despite the collapse of cross-party talks with Labour, the Bill contains a series of commitments on workers’ rights and environmental protections designed to appeal to Opposition MPs.
It also contains commitments to look at alternative arrangements to prevent the need for the controversial backstop aimed at keeping a soft border with Ireland.
Mrs Leadsom, one of the Cabinet’s leading Brexiteers, said she would support the Bill, but warned that could change if its provisions were watered down.
And she added that a no-deal departure on October 31 had to remain an option because leaving the EU was “the most important thing of all”.
“I continue to support the Prime Minister to get her Withdrawal Agreement Bill through,” she said. “It is leaving the European Union and so long as it continues to be leaving the European Union, I continue to support it.
“What I do think is that for any negotiation to succeed, you have to be prepared to walk away.”
Despite scepticism in Westminster about the Bill’s chances of success, Mrs Leadsom told BBC Radio 4’s Today it was an “attractive” package.
But shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry dismissed the idea of Labour supporting it, claiming the Bill was a “piece of political theatre” for Mrs May to have one last shot at getting her deal through.
“It’s almost like she is setting up her own political version of the last rites,” she told Today. “She cannot realistically expect to see this get through without fundamental changes and we are not going to see fundamental changes, from everything I hear.”
Defeat for the WAB will accelerate Mrs May’s departure from Downing Street, with the Prime Minister due to set out the timetable for the contest to replace her after the vote.
In a warning to leadership contenders, the Chancellor will use a speech to the CBI’s annual dinner in London on Tuesday to highlight the risk of “right-wing populism”.
He will say that if the Brexit issue is not resolved in the next few weeks, there is a “real risk” of a new prime minister moving towards a “damaging” no-deal exit policy for “ideological” reasons.
In what is likely to be seen as a sharp dig at prominent Tory Brexiteers like ex-foreign secretary Boris Johnson, Mr Hammond will say “all the preparation in the world” will not avoid the consequences of no deal.
In comments that are likely to be seen as a swipe at senior colleagues as well as Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, the Chancellor will say: “On the populist right, there are those who now claim that the only outcome that counts as a truly legitimate Brexit is to leave with no deal.
“Let me remind them: the 2016 Leave campaign was clear that we would leave with a deal.
“So to advocate for no deal is to hijack the result of the referendum, and in doing so, knowingly to inflict damage on our economy and our living standards.”
Mr Hammond’s comments come after Mr Johnson and former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab said they wanted to renegotiate Mrs May’s withdrawal deal with the EU, but not rule out a no-deal exit.
Mr Raab set out his pitch to Tory members, calling for a 5p cut in the basic rate of income tax.
But there was also a boost for frontrunner Mr Johnson as Amber Rudd, a leading figure in the new centre-right One Nation group, indicated she could support a candidate who refused to rule out a no-deal Brexit.
Mr Johnson responded by saying that the values of the One Nation group had “never been more important”.
Agree with all of this. One Nation values have never been more important https://t.co/NypzA5L5mw— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) May 20, 2019
Around 25 Tory MPs attended the One Nation meeting in Westminster on Monday night which outlined the group’s ideas, including rejecting “narrow nationalism”, supporting a “strong society” and backing public services.
Also on Monday night, Lord Heseltine, one of the leading pro-Europeans in the Tory ranks, had the whip suspended after saying he would vote Liberal Democrat in Thursday’s European elections.
Deputy Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson said she would be open to discussions with the former deputy prime minister if he wanted to join her party.