Theresa May confronted Jacob Rees-Mogg at a meeting with Tory MPs designed to break the deadlock over Britain’s future customs arrangements with the EU, The Times has learnt.
The pair clashed yesterday over the impact of rival plans on the Irish border, in what witnesses described as the prime minister “sending a tough signal” to hardline Brexiteers that she was not prepared to jeopardise the Union.
It came after Mrs May went over the heads of her squabbling cabinet with a personal appeal to scores of backbench Tory MPs to help to settle Britain’s position. She issued an open invitation to all 315 Conservative MPs to attend Downing Street briefings on the rival options that have split her top team.
It followed an appeal to voters at the weekend to trust her to deliver Brexit. Allies said that she wanted to take her backbench MPs with her and denied it was an attempt to sideline the cabinet.
Senior ministers, who were not informed in advance, were bemused at the briefings, which were attended by at least 150 MPs. Gavin Barwell, Mrs May’s chief of staff, explained the benefits and flaws of the “customs partnership” model, under which Britain would collect EU tariffs, and the “maximum facilitation” option that proposes using technology to reduce checks on goods.
The exchange with Mr Rees-Mogg was prompted by his suggestion that Britain should keep the border open after Brexit, according to three sources. Mrs May suggested that EU rules would oblige Ireland to construct border infrastructure to protect the single market. She also warned against any move that might anger moderate nationalists in Northern Ireland. A source said: “Jacob said, ‘If there was a border poll, I have no doubt we would win, as the UK did in Scotland [in the 2014 independence referendum].’
“Mrs May said, ‘I would not be as confident as you. That’s not a risk I’m prepared to take. We cannot be confident on the politics of that situation, on how it plays out.’ ”
Another Tory MP in the room said: “She slapped him down very hard. Everyone thinks he knows what he’s on about but she got him on facts. She was absolutely firm and passionate about the Irish position. I got a sense she realises what really matters.”
Mr Rees-Mogg did not comment on the exchanges but said that the meeting was “courteous and respectful”.
There was no let-up in the hostilities between cabinet ministers supporting the rival options. Liam Fox, the trade secretary, will seek to rally MPs to the Brexiteers’ favoured “max-fac” solution today after Greg Clark, the business secretary, travelled to Sweden to dismiss claims that it delivers frictionless trade. Both will attend the Brexit “war cabinet” today with little prospect of a decision and renewed warnings from Brussels that time is running out.
Mrs May, who has previously backed the customs partnership, did not push that option in the meetings but ensured her MPs were confronted with its flaws, and those of maximum facilitation. The briefings were compared to a “price comparison website” by one Tory MP, who said: “It was pretty detailed, technical stuff.” The former Remainer said that he was persuaded that max-fac was most likely to deliver a “tangible benefit” before the next election.
Today’s meeting will hear from the two working groups that Mrs May has tasked with assessing the options. Mr Clark, who sits with David Davis, the Brexit secretary, and Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland secretary, on the group assessing the max-fac solution, travelled to Norway’s border with Sweden, seen by Brexiteers as the sort of streamlined operation that could work for the UK.
The Commission hides behind faux concern for the Irish border undermining the single market, something that is, in the jargon, uncommuniataire. No doubt this will be left to the inevitable, tiresome 11th hour summiteering at the end of this process.
It is important to be clear about the border, our shared past and our common future. We will not impose a border. If there is a deal to be done about the border it will be precisely that: a deal. Nonetheless, if one side keeps refusing to bargain, no deal will be struck.
If Brussels or Dublin insist upon rejecting all the practical approaches that we propose it is, with regret, that we will have to graciously accept their rejection. If they either do not want to or simply cannot broker a deal, a deal will not be done.
Inflammatory, unhelpful rhetoric is being used by some politicians in advance of their elections such as the Irish foreign minister, Mr Coveney, I wish it were restricted just to slogans. In fact, damaging suggestions have been made. The Irish Government has already proposed splitting the UK by creating a border within it down the middle of the Irish Sea. Either Dublin respects the Belfast Agreement, which committed the parties peacefully to respect that Northern Ireland chooses her own constitutional future, or she does not.
The Irish Government needs to understand that if it obliges us to choose between the Republic and the Union, we will choose the Union. Thus any deal which addresses the border to everyone’s satisfaction is a deal which puts the Union first.
The PM has been unambiguous in her unionism as has the Party and the majority in Parliament unalterably behind her. It would be helpful if everyone could unite to ensure that we secure the best outcome for the whole of the United Kingdom and Ireland otherwise there will be a high economic price to be paid, primarily by Dublin.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London