May invites Tory rebels into heart of Government in search of Brexit deal

Theresa May will invite rebel Tory MPs into the heart of Government on Monday to thrash out changes to her Brexit deal she hopes can overcome massive opposition in Brussels and Westminster.

Hardline eurosceptics in the European Research Group and Remain-supporting former ministers will form the Alternative Arrangements Working Group (AAWG), which Downing Street said would meet “regularly” with Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and senior officials.

ERG deputy chairman Steve Baker, former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson and Yeovil MP Marcus Fysh will join forces with former education secretary Nicky Morgan and ex-cabinet office minister Damian Green to examine the feasibility of the so-called Malthouse Compromise.

The new grouping was announced as former foreign secretary Boris Johnson accused the party leadership of using rumours of a June general election, which appeared in Sunday newspapers, as a “scare tactic” to bounce exhausted Conservative MPs into backing her Withdrawal Agreement.

Owen Paterson, Steve Baker, Nicky Morgan
Owen Paterson, Steve Baker, Nicky Morgan

He used his regular Monday Telegraph column to suggest that if someone in Tory HQ thought a summer election was a good idea they should be “dispatched on secondment to Venezuela or Zimbabwe or somewhere they can do less damage.”

Earlier, car giant Nissan hit out at Brexit “uncertainty” as it confirmed it would build its X-Trail 4×4 in Japan instead of at its Sunderland plant.

In a letter to staff Gianluca de Ficchy, the Japanese firm’s Europe chairman blamed pressure on the diesel market for the U-turn, adding: “We have taken this decision for the business reasons I’ve explained, but clearly the uncertainty around the UK’s future relationship with the EU is not helping companies like ours to plan for the future.”

The AAWG is due to meet at the Cabinet Office in Whitehall on Monday, with meetings also scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

Mr Baker, a former Brexit minister who quit last year in protest at the Chequers agreement, and Ms Morgan were involved talks last week between MPs from the Remain and Brexiteer wings of the Conservative Party over the Malthouse compromise.

Drawn up in meetings co-ordinated by housing minister Kit Malthouse, it recasts the backstop as a “free trade agreement-lite”, with a commitment on all sides there should be no hard border and an extended transition period to December 2021.

It is seen as one of the main reasons the ERG changed its mind and backed an amendment last Tuesday tabled by Sir Graham Brady.

It requires the PM to replace the Agreement’s controversial backstop with “alternative arrangements” to keep the Irish border open after Brexit.

Mrs May told the Commons last week it was “a serious proposal that we are engaging with sincerely and positively”.

Mr Baker told the Press Association on Sunday: “After a positive conference call today running through the Government’s questions, I’m more confident than ever we can land the Malthouse compromise, including the indefinite Better Deal backstop protocol.

“I hope our meetings with Government are as constructive as they should be because Malthouse is the only game in town if we are to achieve a deal.

“I just hope engagement is as sincere as the PM’s words at the despatch box led us to expect.”

Mr Johnson used his Telegraph column to heap scorn on the idea of a general election in a few months time.

He attacked the idea not because he though Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party might win but because “if Tory MPs were asked to go into electoral battle in the next few months, there would be a hole in the heart of our manifesto”.

He added: “I have no idea what we would say about the EU – because after two-and-a-half years of dither the truly astonishing feature of the UK position is that the big questions have still not been answered.”

Earlier on Sunday, Home Secretary Sajid Javid suggested that Border Force figures believe there are viable alternative arrangements to the Irish border backstop that would avoid the need for a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Mr Javid told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “They have shown me quite clearly you can have no hard border on the island of Ireland and you can use existing technology. It is perfectly possible, the only thing missing is a bit of goodwill on the EU side.”

However this was publicly questioned by Sabine Weyand, deputy to European Commission chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

She tweeted: “That would not be ‘goodwill’ but a dereliction of duty by public authorities in the EU that have a duty to ensure public health and safety of consumers, protect against unfair competition and enforce public policies and international agreements.”