Theresa May under pressure to change Brexit plan amid leadership threat
THERESA May is under intense pressure from Tory Brexiteers to change her controversial blueprint for leaving the European Union.
Cabinet minister Greg Clark pleaded with Tory Eurosceptics who have tabled amendments to the Government's customs bill aimed at imposing strict conditions on the Prime Minister after she produced a plan which would keep the UK closely tied to Brussels' rules on goods and food.
The amendments could be used as a show of strength by the Brexiteers, who are furious at the Chequers plan, but there were signs at Westminster that Mrs May could be prepared to compromise in an effort to avert a damaging blow to her authority.
A senior Government source said "no decision yet" had been made on whether to accept the amendments supported by arch-Eurosceptics including Jacob Rees-Mogg, Sir Bernard Jenkin, Priti Patel and Iain Duncan Smith.
A Brexiteer source said that while ministers "haven't yet" accepted the amendments "all the noise is in that direction".
Business Secretary Mr Clark was challenged about the potential revolt on the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill, often referred to as the customs bill.
On BBC Radio 4's Today programme he urged Tory colleagues who "want to get on with Brexit" to acknowledge that the Bill was "essential" and should not be impeded.
Asked if there was a suggestion that ministers would accept the amendments he said: "No. The Bill is an important part of preparing for the world after Brexit and I would have thought that all colleagues would respect the fact that we need to get those preparations in place whilst having this important negotiation to make sure that our trading arrangement can continue to support prosperity in the future."
Sir Bernard told the programme that the Chequers plan was "dead", with opposition from both wings of the Tory party.
"I'm afraid it is neither beloved by Remainers or Leavers.
"It's also quite likely to be either rejected by the EU or more demands will be made upon it so it will be even less acceptable."
Mr Rees-Mogg, the leader of the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG), played down suggestions over the weekend they were seeking to topple Mrs May, saying she still had time to change course on her proposals.
However, the danger to the Prime Minister was underlined by the disclosure that Brexiteers had set up a WhatsApp group to co-ordinate voting tactics, organised by ex-Brexit minister Steve Baker, who quit over the Chequers plan.
The Daily Telegraph reported more than 100 MPs had joined the group, more than double the 48 needed to submit letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister to force a leadership contest.
North Cornwall MP Scott Mann quit as a ministerial aide to the Treasury, the former postman saying he would not "deliver a watered down Brexit".
The threat from the Brexiteers is not the only danger facing Mrs May, with pro-EU Tories tabling amendments of their own to the customs bill and the Trade Bill, which returns to the Commons on Tuesday, which would keep Britain in a customs union with the EU.
It was unclear whether they will actually press them to a vote after some pro-EU MPs backed Mrs May's Chequers plan and EU white paper.
However, in a sign of just how volatile the party has become, former education secretary Justine Greening, who backed Remain, denounced the plan, saying it offered the "worst of both worlds" and called for a second referendum.
"The only solution is to take the final Brexit decision out of the hands of deadlocked politicians, away from the backroom deals, and give it back to the people," she said in an article for The Times.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman responded: "The British public have voted to leave the European Union. There is not going to be a second referendum under any circumstances."
The spokesman said Mrs May was "very clear that the proposal we put forward at Chequers delivers on the will of the people in the referendum".
The Chequers plan was "the only way to enable us to get a deal with no friction at the EU/UK border, to resolve the Northern Ireland border issue and to ensure that we can strike free trade deals around the world," said the spokesman.
"Cabinet is behind it, businesses have come out to support it and now we need to get on with negotiating with the EU."
Negotiations on the withdrawal agreement and future relationship resumed at official level in Brussels on Monday, with new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab due to hold his first face-to-face talks with the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Thursday.
Labour Brexit spokeswoman Jenny Chapman criticised Mr Raab for failing to attend the start of the new round of talks: "Over the past week the Government's Brexit strategy has descended into utter chaos.
"But rather than trying to repair the damage and negotiate with Brussels, the new Brexit Secretary has decided to take the evening off and attend a summer drinks reception. This is simply not good enough."
Meanwhile Boris Johnson, in his first public intervention since his resignation last week, appealed for people to take a more positive view of Britain's prospects outside the EU.
In a sign that he was keeping his powder dry, he said in an article for The Daily Telegraph that he would resist "for now" the temptation "to bang on about Brexit".