May orders divided cabinet to boycott Brexit indicative votes
The prime minister had suggested she would “engage constructively” with the indicative votes process, set up by a cross-party group of MPs led by the former Conservative minister Sir Oliver Letwin.
But Downing Street sources confirmed that the government would whip Conservative MPs to oppose the business motion kicking off Monday’s votes.
Backbench MPs and junior ministers will then be allowed a free vote on the various options being considered, which are likely to include a customs union, a Norway-style “common market 2.0” deal, and a referendum.
The deeply divided cabinet, which May’s own chief whip, Julian Smith, described in a BBC interview on Monday as the “worst example of ill-discipline in cabinet in British political history”, will be instructed not to vote.
Asked about Smith’s comments, May’s spokesman said she continued to have confidence in her chief whip. “I’ll leave it to historians to make their judgments on history,” he said.
Smith suggested the government should have been clearer in the aftermath of the 2017 general election it would have to tack towards a softer Brexit deal in order to build a majority in the hung parliament.
The prime minister’s spokesman said “soft Brexit” was “not terminology the prime minister has ever used”, but underlined her continued objections to Britain remaining part of a customs union.
If MPs do support a closer future trading relationship with the EU, the prime minister will face a fateful choice about whether to accept and implement that decision.
Her spokesman declined to say what she would do, but underlined the government’s continued opposition to a customs union.
“She has said on a number of occasions that she believes it is important for the UK to have its own trade policy,” he said.
Many Brexiters on the Conservative benches, including within the cabinet, are vehemently opposed to accepting a customs union. The European Research Group deputy chair, Steve Baker, told the BBC’s Politics Live on Monday he would not rule out voting against the government on a no-confidence motion, if May embraced the policy.
“I think it would really shatter the party. I’ve said that before. I’m not sure what would happen … It would be a clear breach of our manifesto promises,” he said.
Pressed on whether he could even support a no-confidence motion in those circumstances, he said: “At this point I can foresee no circumstances while, as a Conservative MP, I voted against the government in a confidence motion. But we are approaching the point where the stakes are now so very high, and so transcend party politics and what this country is about, and the fundamental British value that political power rests on consent, that I think these things are coming on to the table.”
Downing Street suggested it would be for the cabinet at its weekly meeting to decide how to proceed, if, as expected, MPs supported a softer deal on Monday.
But government sources suggested May could still aim to bring her deal to parliament for a fourth time on Wednesday – when Letwin and his colleagues plan to set aside another day of parliamentary business, potentially to pass legislation implementing the outcome of Monday’s votes.
The prime minister warned MPs last Friday when her deal was rejected by MPs for the third time: “I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this house”, but it was not clear how she hoped to proceed.