Concerted lobbying by UK ministers, including prime minister Theresa May, has left Conservative Eurosceptics feeling “reassured” about the direction of the Brexit process.
Mrs May used a conciliatory speech in Florence last month to edge her government towards accepting a two-year transition period that would effectively keep the UK in the EU in all but name until 2021. Mrs May also said Britain would pay €20bn into the EU budget after Brexit, and signalled the contribution was only a down payment on what could be a considerably larger “divorce” bill.
The overtures unsettled many pro-Brexit MPs, who want the UK to fully leave the EU in March 2019, and say any transition arrangement would delay the benefits of possible post-Brexit trade deals.
But Bernard Jenkin, a leading backbench Eurosceptic, said this week that the mood had shifted following “a lot of meetings with ministers, including the prime minister”.
“I think most people are very reassured and she’s given us a lot of confidence,” said Mr Jenkin, the MP for Harwich.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of the party’s best-known Eurosceptics, agreed, saying: “I think my wing of the party is feeling less restive than it was.”
Eurosceptics were further bolstered by reports this week that the Conservative central office had held talks with Matthew Elliott, one of the founders of Vote Leave, about him taking on a voluntary role at the party’s headquarters. Mr Elliott, a former head of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, a rightwing pressure group, has recently cricised “leftwing populists” for undermining public support for free trade.
The change of mood among Tory MPs reduces the risk that the government will face opposition from Eurosceptics when MPs continue debating the EU withdrawal bill next month.
Peter Bone, another Eurosceptic MP, said that “for the first time in a while” the party’s Europhiles felt they were going backwards.
“The prime minister and the negotiations are going forward,” Mr Bone said.
Mrs May received a relatively warm welcome from Eurosceptic Tories this week after this month’s EU leaders summit, with many pro-Brexit MPs encouraged by the apparent deadlock in negotiations.
Many Eurosceptics back a “no deal” scenario, where the UK leaves the EU without a comprehensive trade deal, saying it would decisively end Britain’s ties with the bloc. Others say simply the prospect of a “no-deal” strengthens Britain’s hand in negotiations by putting the EU under pressure to concede to the UK’s demands on its “divorce” exit payment and future trade arrangements.
“It seems to me that the threat of no deal is the way to get the EU to negotiate properly,” said Mr Bone.
© Dominic Lipinski/PA
At the same time, however, the slow pace of talks with Brussels and the buoyant mood among Eurosceptics have prompted pro-EU Tories to co-ordinate with opposition MPs to oppose the government over key Brexit legislation.
Earlier this week, pro-EU MPs sought reassurance from the prime minister about the likely direction of Brexit negotiations. Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, unsuccessfully asked the prime minister to rule out a “no-deal” Brexit.
Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor, suggested that Mrs May appoint a mediator to hammer out a joint position with opposition parties that could be presented to the European Commission.
A common thread among pro-EU MPs’ questions in the Commons was their concern about the potential damage to business from an abrupt exit from the EU. Stephen Hammond, the MP for Wimbledon, said there would be a battle if the government sought to shorten the planned two-year transition period.
“You should take it that we’re becoming much more organised than we were,” Mr Hammond said. “There will be a tussle over no deal; there will be a tussle over the transition period.”
A no-deal departure would be catastrophic for the country, he said. “We have to continue to ensure that a deal is uppermost in the government’s mind.”
Additional reporting by Henry Mance in London