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Pressure on PM intensifies as EU prepares to green-light Brexit transition talks

Theresa May has been warned against a “dilution” of Brexit, been told to “get a grip” and apparently likened to a tortoise.

Theresa May was under mounting pressure over Brexit and her leadership as the European Union prepared to green-light negotiations on a transition period which has become a highly contentious issue in Westminster.

The Prime Minister is facing increasingly vocal complaints from Leavers that she is preparing to deliver a Brexit “in name only” because the UK will follow EU rules during the transition while several backbenchers broke cover over the weekend to criticise her lack of action on domestic issues.

Eurosceptic former Cabinet minister Theresa Villiers said she was worried about a “dilution of Brexit” while Remainer Heidi Allen told the PM to “get a grip” because the Tories are “letting this country down”, and former minister Rob Halfon appeared to liken Mrs May to a “tortoise”.

A weekend of bloodletting which raised fresh speculation about a potential leadership challenge threatened to get worse after the Telegraph obtained a WhatsApp message sent by energy minister Claire Perry in which she branded Brexiteers concerned about the £39 billion EU divorce bill as “swivel-eyed” elderly men with no mortgages or young children.

There were calls for Mrs May to sack Chancellor Philip Hammond, who enraged Brexiteers by saying trade relations with the EU would change only “very modestly” and that the UK should seek a “middle way”.

Intensifying Tory infighting will not go unnoticed in Brussels, where the EU General Affairs Council is expected on Monday to approve guidelines for chief negotiator Michel Barnier to follow during talks on a post-Brexit transition period.

The basic principles are likely to be that Britain must follow “the whole of the EU acquis”, or law, but no longer participate in the institutions and decision-making of the bloc, while complying with European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings and paying into the budget.

The Government has already indicated it is willing to comply with most of the EU’s demands to secure an “implementation period” of about two years after withdrawal in March 2019 to make life easier for businesses, but to the consternation of Brexiteers.

Countdown to Brexit: key events. (PA Graphics)

In a bid to allay Eurosceptic concerns over Britain being required to follow EU rules while having no say in drawing them up, Brexit Secretary David Davis has said he will seek the establishment of an “appropriate process” for the UK to object to any new laws introduced during transition.

Reports suggest, however, this could run into opposition from Brussels.

Mrs May’s de facto deputy, Cabinet Office minister David Lidington, sought to calm tensions on Sunday by urging warring Tories to come together in mutual respect.

He also tried to reassure Brexiteers by stressing Britain will “have the option” to diverge from EU rules “once we have left the supranational legal structures of the EU” and insisting Mr Hammond was “fully on board” with the approach the PM set out in speeches at Lancaster House and in Florence.

He could not stem the tide of complaints from both Brexiteers concerned at the Government’s approach to negotiations and backbenchers bemoaning a lack of action on domestic issues.

Westminster will be closely watching Monday speeches on the future of the Conservatives by Mrs May’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy and backbencher Johnny Mercer, who has warned the Tories would “pay the price” if it does not deal with challenges at home such as the NHS.

On Sunday, Leaver Nadine Dorries said the disloyal Mr Hammond “has to go”, suggesting he was part of a Remainer plot to cause “chaos” by lobbing a “hand grenade” into the Brexit debate.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who chairs the influential European Research Group of backbench Tory Brexiteers, said the Chancellor’s recent comments had caused “real trouble” for the Government and indicated he would not oppose his sacking.

Normally loyal backbencher Nigel Mills said the PM has not delivered on her early promises to tackle “burning injustices” and that MPs are concerned because “we don’t quite know what the direction is”.

Mr Halfon said: “We need to have less policy-making by tortoise and (more) policy-making by lion. Because we have to be radical. We have to stop seeing politics in transactional terms.”

Meanwhile, the Times reported that Cabinet ministers on a key Brexit sub-committee are to be shown economic analysis of different options for exiting the EU in one-to-one talks with officials this week.

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