Theresa May has told Tory rebels that if they defy her over Brexit legislation, it will undermine the UK’s position in negotiations with Brussels.
The Prime Minister urged backbenchers not to support Lords amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill when it returns to the Commons on Tuesday because a Government defeat would send the wrong signal.
Addressing a meeting of the backbench 1922 committee on Monday ahead of a series of crunch votes, the Prime Minister said: “We must think about the message Parliament will send to the European Union this week.
“I am trying to negotiate the best deal for Britain. I am confident I can get a deal that allows us to strike our own trade deals while having a border with the EU which is as frictionless as possible.
“But if the Lords amendments are allowed to stand, that negotiating position will be undermined.”
The Government is thought to be most vulnerable on two amendments – one on the customs union and the other giving Parliament a decisive say over what happens next if it rejects a final Brexit deal.
After Mrs May spoke to MPs, Brexit Minister Steve Baker signalled that the Government was prepared consider a compromise backbench amendment regarding customs relations with the EU.
The compromise amendment, which has been put together by Remain backers Sir Oliver Letwin and Nicky Morgan, as well as Brexiteers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Sir Bill Cash, calls for “a customs arrangement” with the EU.
Sir Bill told the Press Association it represented a “holding position”, and was “flexible” enough for him to support.
The purpose of the EU Withdrawal Bill is simple - it is putting EU legislation into law to ensure a smooth and orderly transition as we leaveTheresa May
Mr Baker said: “The Government will look very carefully at what they have tabled and we will take a decision on whether or not we can support it in the usual way.
“Our policy is to leave the customs union so that we can conduct our own independent trade policy but it would be appropriate that we have an arrangement in place with the European Union.”
Solicitor General Robert Buckland appealed for unity, saying: “There’s ongoing work happening and I think it’s emblematic, actually, of a real sense of common purpose in the party that we all hang together or we all hang separately.”
Mrs May, who was greeted with some cheering and table banging at the meeting, made the point to backbenchers that while the Bill itself may be a largely technical measure, the way that they vote in the division lobbies on Tuesday and Wednesday will send an important signal to the country.
“The purpose of the EU Withdrawal Bill is simple – it is putting EU legislation into law to ensure a smooth and orderly transition as we leave.
“But the message we send to the country through our votes this week is important. We must be clear that we are united as a party in our determination to deliver on the decision made by the British people.
“They want us to deliver on Brexit and build a brighter future for Britain as we take back control of our money, our laws and our borders.”
Despite depending on the votes of the 10 DUP MPs for her precarious Commons majority, there were signs of cautious optimism among ministers that they would get the numbers to see off the revolt.
But, ahead of the 1922 meeting, Conservative Remain campaigner Sarah Wollaston called for “further concessions” on the customs union.
The Totnes MP said she was “minded” to rebel to support a Lords amendment on giving Parliament a meaningful vote on an exit deal, telling the BBC: “We would like to see further concessions on the amendment on the customs union because it is just a very sensible amendment that says keep it on the table, don’t completely rule it out.”
Senior backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg said he expected there would be enough unity in Conservative ranks to see the Bill through.
The Brexit supporter told LBC radio on Monday that he would not expect people like pro-Remain MP Ken Clarke, who have “strong principles”, to change their minds.
Mr Clarke had urged the rebels to hold their nerve, arguing on Sunday that if they succeeded they would strengthen Mrs May’s hand against the Brexit hardliners in the Cabinet.