Brexit: May’s challengers may be close to triggering confidence vote

PM’s spokesman brushes aside report that EU ready to offer UK-wide customs backstop

UK prime minister Theresa May. Photograph: Alastair Grant/AFP/Getty Images

UK prime minister Theresa May. Photograph: Alastair Grant/AFP/Getty Images


Theresa May will address the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers on Wednesday evening amid rumours that the number of MPs seeking a confidence vote in her leadership is close to the threshold of 48. Her appearance before the committee follows what Downing Street described as an “impassioned” cabinet discussion of her Brexit strategy on Tuesday.

The prime minister’s official spokesman brushed off an RTÉ report that the EU is prepared to offer Britain a legally binding, UK-wide customs backstop.

“Take any of it with a pinch of salt. The PM set out our position yesterday in relation to the backstop. That remains the case today. The prospect of Northern Ireland being placed in a different customs arrangement to the rest of the UK is unacceptable. The House of Commons has voted to pass a law to that effect,” he said.

According to the report, the withdrawal agreement would still include a Northern Ireland-only backstop, and the UK-wide version would be in a separate treaty to be concluded after Britain leaves the EU next March. The withdrawal agreement would, however, contain a specific commitment to a UK-wide customs arrangement by way of a legal article.

In the House of Commons on Monday, Mrs May outlined four steps to resolve the issue of the backstop, including a demand that the UK-wide customs backstop should be legally binding so there would be no need for a Northern Ireland-only version. Downing Street said later that any Northern Ireland-only backstop was unacceptable.

During Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, ministers are reported to have warned that Britain must not remain in a temporary customs arrangement with the EU for an extended period and that any backstop must not be indefinite. 

Weekly updates

The cabinet is to receive weekly updates on preparations for a no-deal Brexit and the Financial Times reports that the government is drawing up plans to charter ships to bring in emergency supplies of food and medicines.

The government fears that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, new customs controls in France could create a bottleneck on the Dover-Calais route.

“Whatever we do at our end, the French could cause chaos if they carry out checks at their end,” one government official told the Financial Times

“Dover-Calais would be the obvious pinch point. The French would say they were only applying the rules.”

Edward Leigh on Tuesday night became the 50th Conservative MP to sign a StandUp4Brexit pledge to oppose Mrs May’s Chequers proposal and demand a hard Brexit. The signatories, who include Boris Johnson, David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg, also oppose the backstop, claiming it cuts Northern Ireland off from the rest of the UK.

1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady indicated on Tuesday that he has not yet received letters from 48 MPs calling for a confidence vote in Mrs May. If he does, he must call such a vote, which is conducted by secret ballot and the prime minister’s adversaries will need 159 votes to topple her.

If she survives the vote, she cannot be challenged again for a further 12 months.

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