Anti-EU Tories tell Johnson he must kill off May deal or face rebellion
Removing the backstop from the Brexit deal will not be enough to secure the support of hardline Tory Eurosceptics, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been warned.
Mark Francois, leader of the European Research Group (ERG), a band of anti-European Union Conservative MPs, said he would not be voting for the Withdrawal Agreement even if Mr Johnson was successful in having the Irish backstop removed.
In exchange for ERG support, Mr Francois said he wanted Theresa May’s Brexit deal killed off entirely.
The backstop was negotiated by the former prime minister in a bid to avoid a hard border in Ireland after Brexit by keeping the UK in a customs arrangement with the EU until an inspection-free alternative could be agreed upon.
Mr Johnson met with his counterparts German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron last week to discuss how to remove the backstop “whole and entire” from the Withdrawal Agreement.
The PM told European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker during a phone call on Tuesday that “unless the Withdrawal Agreement is reopened and the backstop abolished there is no prospect of that deal” – a possible signal that the Tory leader is prepared to live with the deal as it stands as long as the backstop is eradicated.
But Mr Francois, MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, told ITV News that Mr Johnson had promised the ERG during the Tory leadership contest that the exit deal negotiated by Mrs May was “dead”.
Asked on the political podcast Acting Prime Minister whether he could vote for the Withdrawal Agreement if it did not contain the backstop, he replied: “No.”
He said: “Prior to the first parliamentary ballot – when Boris was all desperate for the ERG to vote for him – he had a meeting with the senior leadership of the ERG and he absolutely, adamantly promised us that the Withdrawal Agreement was dead.
“He said it several times. Now, if a politician makes an absolute commitment, to me, I expect them to keep their word, whether they’re a prime minister or a parish councillor.
“I’m not voting for the Withdrawal Agreement and I suspect neither will many of my colleagues.”
The backbencher and prominent critic of Mrs May said it was not only ERG members who would vote down the Withdrawal Agreement – the legal terms of Britain’s exit, dealing with the divorce fee, EU citizens’ rights and the Northern Irish border – with other MPs in the House of Commons also likely to oppose it.
The PM’s decision to prorogue Parliament from September 12 to October 14 will allow him to bring back the Withdrawal Agreement to be voted upon for a fourth time, skirting around Commons Speaker John Bercow’s ruling that the same deal cannot be voted upon more than once.
Mr Francois said: “It’s the House of Commons that voted down the Withdrawal Agreement, it wasn’t just the ERG, and it was voted down decisively three times and if the Prime Minister were to bring back pretty much the same withdrawal agreement, I expect he’d get pretty much the same result. I don’t think it’s going to go through.”