Conservative MPs threaten rebellion on Brexit deal

Conservative MPs threaten rebellion on Brexit deal

More than 30 Brexiter Tories could withhold support if Boris Johnson gives significant ground

More than 30 pro-Brexit Tory MPs are privately threatening to withhold support for a UK-EU free trade deal if Boris Johnson is forced into any significant last-minute compromises to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

According to several senior MPs on the 70-strong European Research Group (ERG), its membership is evenly divided between those who say they will “suck it up”and vote for a deal even if the prime minister has to give some ground, and those who would be prepared to rebel and withhold support in protest if he moves from his current hardline positions.

“There has been of lot of activity on our WhatsApp groups on this,” said one senior member of the ERG. “We are divided between those who say let’s just suck it up and get this done, and others who say they have fought for their entire careers for this and will not vote for a deal that is not really Brexit.”

While Johnson is almost certain to win a vote on any deal, given that Labour is expected to back one, a significant Tory rebellion would be a blow to the prime minister, and suggest that the Tory civil war over Europe will continue even after the end of the transition period.

Senior figures in the EU, including in the European parliament, have named Sunday as the final realistic deadline for agreement. But on Saturday both Downing Street and Brussels appeared to be more pessimistic about the chances of a deal than a few days ago, although talks between officials have been continuing over the weekend.

Clément Beaune, France’s European affairs minister and a longstanding ally of Emmanuel Macron, said, however, that France was prepared to drag the negotiations even beyond the European parliament’s Sunday deadline. His intervention came as the Observer learned that key member states have slapped down an attempt by the European commission to offer an improved deal on fish to Downing Street to break the deadlock.

The annual turnover from fish for UK vessels in British waters is about €850m (£770m), compared with €650m by those of EU member states. The prime minister has rejected the latest EU offer of handing over 25% of its catch by value – €162.5m a year – to UK vessels. Downing Street insists that the EU needs to get closer to its demand for 60% of the current catch being repatriated, worth about €390m a year. The government also wants to restrict a phase-in period for the new arrangements to three years – but the EU has suggested a six- or seven-year period.

It is understood that Michel Barnier’s negotiating team was looking to table an improved offer in the face of Downing Street’s rejection but has been told by the member states with the biggest interest in fishing that they will not go any further.

MEPs had said on Thursday that they would stage a vote of consent on 28 December if terms were agreed by the two sides by midnight central European time on Sunday, raising the stakes for a weekend deal.

But as negotiations continued in Brussels on Saturday, Beaune said the French government would not be rushed into a deal over the next 24 hours. He said: “There is nothing wrong in not saying: well it’s Sunday evening so let’s wrap it and sacrifice everything. It may be hard and sometimes tough to understand, but it’s necessary to take the time and, at any rate, not to sacrifice our interests under the pressure of a calendar.”

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If Johnson emerges with a deal with the EU, it will only be achieved if both sides shift ground on issues including access by EU fishermen to UK waters, and so-called “level playing field” rules that Brussels says UK businesses must comply with in return for continued access to the single market. Tory Brexiters are particularly concerned to ensure no role for the European court of justice in any future disputes involving the UK.

Sir Bernard Jenkin, a veteran Eurosceptic and member of the ERG, said he had “complete faith” in Johnson to deliver a deal that protected UK fisheries and UK sovereignty.

But stressing the importance of sticking to that position, he added: “That means we recover our full sovereign right of democratic self-government and we don’t sell out on issues, including fish.”

Eurosceptics say the biggest beneficiary of a fudged Brexit deal would be Nigel Farage.

Another veteran Brexiter, Peter Bone, the MP for Wellingborough, said: “I don’t think for one moment that the prime minister is not going to honour the results of the referendum and the mandate achieved at the general election.

“But if you are asking me if a bad deal was done, which I don’t think would happen, then I couldn’t vote for a bad deal and I think there is a significant number of colleagues who could not vote for a bad deal.”

A deal could still be provisionally applied on 1 January if agreement is found in the next few days, with the European parliament holding a vote later in the month.

Such a process would also take up to a week, given the need for the treaty to be translated and scrutinised by officials in the EU capitals. Barnier told MEPs on Thursday that as a result there might need to be a short period without any trade and security arrangements in place if the talks dragged on to Christmas.

Gerard van Balsfoort, chairman of the European Fisheries Alliance, representing the EU fishing industry, said the EU offer already went too far and would sound the death knell for the sector. He said: “The shape of a deal, as currently stands would give a huge blow to the European seafood sector which is made up more than 18,000 fishermen and 3,500 vessels with an annual turnover of €20.7bn.

“Our industry is literally and metaphorically on the brink and in spite of repeated promises made, we are in the throes of being sold down the river with the offer made to the United Kingdom by the European commission. The more so when the fisheries negotiations with the UK are intended to start all over again after only six or seven years.”

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