Home Secretary tells Brexiteers to back off the PM


Home Secretary Amber Rudd has said ministers will not be intimidated by threats from Tory Brexiteers amid fresh warnings of a leadership challenge if Theresa May fails to deliver a "clean Brexit".

As senior ministers prepared to discuss Britain's future relationship with the EU, Ms Rudd insisted there was greater unity around the Cabinet table than many MPs realised.

She expressed confidence Mrs May's Brexit "war cabinet" would be able to come up with a plan that commanded broad support when it meets on Wednesday and then again on Thursday.

(Jeff Overs/BBC)
(Jeff Overs/BBC)

Her comments came amid warnings from senior Tory Eurosceptics that any deal with Brussels which keeps Britain in a customs union with the EU would be unacceptable.

The Sunday Times reported some MPs wanted to replace her with a Brexiteer "dream team" with Boris Johnson as prime minister, Michael Gove his deputy and Jacob Rees-Mogg the backbenchers' "shop steward" if there was any backsliding by ministers.

Ms Rudd, who sits on the 10-strong Brexit Cabinet sub-committee, insisted that the Government was committed to leaving the customs union - along with the single market - when the UK withdraws from the EU in March 2019.

However, she reaffirmed they would be seeking to negotiate a customs "arrangement" or "partnership" with the EU - as set out in a position paper last year - to ensure trade with the bloc remains as "frictionless" as possible.

Some Eurosceptics however remain deeply suspicious fearing ministers like Chancellor Philip Hammond - who suggested Britain's relationship with the EU would only change "very modestly" - want to keep Britain in the EU in all but name.

Bernard Jenkin has said the Prime Minister must deliver a "clean Brexit" (Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament/(Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)/PA)

Senior backbencher Bernard Jenkin accused Mr Hammond of pursuing a different policy to the Prime Minister, and warned that her position would be in jeopardy unless there was "clean Brexit".

"She can only command a majority in Parliament on her present policy," he wrote in an article for The Sunday Telegraph.

However, appearing on BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show, Ms Rudd said ministers would not be intimidated by such threats.

"I have a surprise for the Brexiteers, which is the committee that meets in order to help make these decisions is more united than they think," she said.

"We meet in the committee. We meet privately for discussions. I think that we will arrive at something which suits us all.

"There will be choices to be made within that, but we all want the same thing which is to arrive at a deal which works for the UK."

Nevertheless the meetings on Wednesday and Thursday are potentially explosive.

Former Cabinet Secretary @Gus_ODonnell unimpressed by Brexiteer attacks on the civil service: "if you're selling snake oil you don't like the experts testing your product" #Pestonpic.twitter.com/swOUN5YweS

-- Peston on Sunday (@pestononsunday) February 4, 2018

Mrs May found it hard enough to forge an agreement among her warring ministers on a post-Brexit transition deal and finding consensus on Britain's future relationship with the EU is likely to prove far more complicated.

The Prime Minister has previously avoided a full-blown discussion in the Brexit sub-committee on the issue because of the sensitivities involved.

Broadly ministers are divided among those like Mr Hammond whose priority is to keep Britain as closely aligned with the EU as possible to preserve current trade arrangements and those like Mr Johnson who want the maximum freedom to strike deals with countries outside the bloc.

Ahead of those meetings, Mrs May and Brexit Secretary David Davis will meet the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Downing Street as officials in Brussels begin talks on the transitional arrangements.

Earlier, Mr Rees-Mogg came under fresh attack over his claim that Treasury officials had been deliberately "fiddling the figures" to undermine the case for Brexit.

Lord O'Donnell, a former cabinet secretary and head of the Civil Service, said officials were completely "objective and impartial" in the way they presented the evidence.

"We look at the evidence and we go where it is. Of course if you are selling snake oil, you don't like the idea of experts testing your products," he told ITV's Peston On Sunday.

"And I think that's what we've got, this backlash against evidence and experts is because they know where the experts will go."