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Deep divisions in British politics with just 200 days to Brexit

Theresa May has been warned she faces a ‘catastrophic split’ in the Tory party if she maintains her current course.

The UK is just 200 days away from leaving the European Union, but British politics is riven by disagreements over the country’s future direction.

In a stark warning, former Brexit minister Steve Baker said the Conservative Party faces a “catastrophic split” if Theresa May sticks to her Chequers plan for future relations with the EU.

The comments came amid open warfare in the Tory ranks following former foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s comparison of the Government’s Brexit strategy to placing the UK in a “suicide vest” and handing Brussels the detonator.

Mr Baker, who quit the Government in response to Mrs May’s plan to keep the UK in a “common rulebook” with the EU for goods and agriculture, urged the Prime Minister to ditch the policy.

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Steve Baker urged the Prime Minister to ditch the Chequers plan (Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament/PA)

He said the party’s annual conference in Birmingham, starting on September 30, could prove a decisive moment as Mrs May is forced to acknowledge the scale of grassroots opposition to her proposals.

“If we come out of conference with her hoping to get Chequers through on the back of Labour votes, I think the EU negotiators would probably understand that if that were done, the Tory party would suffer the catastrophic split which thus far we have managed to avoid,” he told the Press Association.

Mr Baker, a former chairman of the influential pro-Brexit European Research Group of Conservatives, urged Mrs May to negotiate a free trade agreement instead of the Chequers plan.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid said a Canada-style deal has a “lot to commend it”, but it would not address the problem of the Irish border.

In a sign the Government remained committed to its plan, he told BBC’s Andrew Marr Show:  “I think the only deal that we’ve got on the table, that’s the Chequers deal.”

The toxic atmosphere between the two wings of the Conservative Party was vividly illustrated in the reaction to Mr Johnson’s incendiary Mail on Sunday column.

Condemning the proposals aimed at resolving the Northern Irish border issue, Mr Johnson said: “We have opened ourselves to perpetual political blackmail. We have wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution – and handed the detonator to Michel Barnier.

“We have given him a jemmy with which Brussels can choose – at any time – to crack apart the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

Home Secretary Sajid Javid rebuked his former Cabinet colleague, saying “there are much better ways to articulate your differences”.

Communities Secretary James Brokenshire said he thought Mr Johnson had used the wrong “tone” in the article.

Sir Alan Duncan, Mr Johnson’s former deputy at the Foreign Office, said: “This marks one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics.

“I’m sorry, but this is the political end of Boris Johnson. If it isn’t now, I will make sure it is later.”

Sarah Wollaston, chairwoman of the Commons Health Select Committee, said Mr Johnson was not “fit to lead the country” and indicated she would quit the party if he became prime minister.

But Nadine Dorries, a Brexit supporter, said Mr Johnson’s opponents were “terrified of his popular appeal” and if Mr Johnson became leader and prime minister he would deliver a “clean and prosperous” Brexit.

Across the Commons, Labour too faces a split over Brexit strategy, with Jeremy Corbyn under pressure to commit to supporting a second referendum.

The trade union movement is preparing to throw its weight behind a public vote on the final Brexit deal because of fears the UK is going to “crash out” of the EU.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Whether it’s through a general election or a popular vote, Mrs May should take her deal on the terms of Brexit and put it back to the people.”

Labour former minister David Lammy told the Press Association: “There is a growing momentum across the Labour movement, there will be tremendous pressure I think at party conference.”

While talk at Westminster is of the potential for a second referendum, MPs will consider the legitimacy of the 2016 plebiscite which resulted in the historic decision to leave the EU.

A debate in Parliament has been triggered by a petition signed by almost 200,000 people arguing that the Article 50 notice to leave the EU should be withdrawn due to Brexit campaign Vote Leave’s overspending.

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