Theresa May Faces a Fresh Ultimatum From Pro-Brexit Tories

(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May faces a new ultimatum from euroskeptics in her Conservative Party: accept their demands to tear up her Brexit plan, or trigger a revolt that would threaten her grip on power.

Since she pushed through a proposal to keep close ties to the European Union single market, May has suffered the resignation of nine members of her government team in protest, including two key ministers -- Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis.

The pro-Brexit wing of the Tory party is now mobilizing against May’s plan, which is set out in a so-called white paper, and will propose a series of changes that would effectively re-write it. May is now weighing whether to accept the amendments, even though they would bind her hands in negotiations.

“This white paper is not a white paper it is a white flag,” Priti Patel, a pro-Brexit former cabinet minister who is proposing the new clauses, said in an interview. “These amendments are about taking back control, delivering the Brexit the British public voted for, and putting our country first.” 

The stakes are high. May has just three months to negotiate the final withdrawal treaty and a framework for the future trade agreement ahead of a self-imposed deadline of October. Progress has stalled, mainly because the bloc has been waiting for the U.K. to say what it wants.

Risks

If May confronts her Tory critics, forcing them to vote against her and reveal their strength, she takes the risk that if a large number do so, it could precipitate her downfall. The amendments are backed by pro-Brexit campaigners including Jacob Rees-Mogg, and some media reports have put the number of Tory lawmakers considering voting for them at more than 100.

But if the prime minister accepts the amendments in the hope of reversing them later on, she would be accepting that she doesn’t have the internal support to deliver her plan, something else that could see her forced out.

May finally pushed her vision of a soft Brexit through Cabinet on July 6, but Johnson and Davis quit two days later because they could not support the plan to keep the U.K. tied to EU regulations on the trade of goods forever. May says her plan is the only one possible.

Conceding?

Two officials in May’s office said the government is considering accepting the rebel amendments, meaning all Tories would likely support them.

There are four key amendments to the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill that pro-Brexit lawmakers are putting forward for debate on Monday. The first is the most difficult for May, because it would ban her from implementing her plan to collect EU customs duties after Brexit unless the EU agrees to collect tariffs on behalf of the U.K. -- something she’s not even proposing to ask for in the negotiations.

The second would prevent the U.K. from entering into a post-Brexit customs union with the EU, without a specific new piece of legislation. This would stop the premier accepting the result of a vote in Parliament from pro-EU lawmakers in her party, as well as opposition Labour legislators, who are plotting to keep the U.K. in a customs union.

Another new clause would require the U.K. to maintain a separate value-added tax regime from the EU, whilst the fourth would stop May accepting the EU’s proposal for avoiding a hard border with Ireland.

“The Government unfortunately believes that Brexit is not a good thing in itself,” Rees-Mogg told the BBC’s “Sunday Politics” program. “It seems to think it has to be tempered with non-Brexit.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.