Amber Rudd has tried to quell threats by Brexiters of a challenge to Theresa May’s leadership following reports that Eurosceptic MPs are getting ready to move against the prime minister if she tries to keep the UK in a customs union.
After claims that Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg could form a “dream team” to stop the prime minister’s alleged plan, reported in the Sunday Times, the home secretary said the government would come forward with proposals which would command support across the House of Commons.
“I have a surprise for the Brexiteers which is the [Cabinet] committee that meets in order to help make these decisions is more united than they think,” she told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show.
“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.”
The damaging row has flared up after the prime minister did not rule out such an arrangement, which would limit Britain’s ability to reach free trade agreements with non-EU countries, but failed to say what she thought should happen.
Tensions are running high before a crucial week for Brexit, during which the prime minister and key cabinet ministers will meet over two days to hammer out details of a final deal that can keep all Tory factions on board.
Asked about a customs union, May told Sky News on Friday: “What I want to do is ensure that we have got the best possible trade arrangements with China and with other countries around the world once we have left the European Union,” she told Sky News on Friday.
“I do want to do those free trade agreements. There is more trade that we can do even before we get to those free trade agreements.”
The Sunday Times reported that Johnson had told plotters he would be ready for a future contest and said “the cavalry is coming” to block a customs union plan when the Brexit cabinet committee meets this week.
It is understood that Johnson does plan to argue against a customs union this week but has no plans to challenge May and still openly backs her.
Some Brexiter MPs have confirmed to the Guardian that they are hoping that, at some point, the foreign secretary will form a team with Gove, the foreign secretary alongside Rees-Mogg, the leading figure in the Economic Research Group (ERG).
It is understood that Rees-Mogg has distanced himself from reports of a pact with Gove and Johnson.
Rudd acknowledged that a deal would probably involve some form of customs “arrangement” or “partnership” with the EU, but said May had an “open mind” as to how that could be achieved.
“We a want frictionless trade at the border, we want to make sure that there is no border on the island of Ireland and we want to make sure that we can do trade deals outside of the European Union. That is the deal we are looking for,” she said.
“We need to have this wider agreement. I don’t know how far that will go over the next few weeks but I hope the government will be give the space to try and achieve that.”
Her intervention came as Bernard Jenkin, the chair of an influential select committee, launched a fresh attack on Philip Hammond, accusing him of pursing his own policy on Brexit.
The chancellor angered Brexiters when he suggested at the World Economic Forum in Davos that Britain’s relationship with the EU might only change “very modestly” after leaving.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Jenkin said it was now time for all ministers to get behind May and support the agreed government position.
“She can only command a majority in parliament on her present policy,” he wrote. “Nearly half David Cameron’s MPs voted leave, despite his patronage and pleadings. There would have been few remain Tories if he had advocated leave.
“Her MPs will back her, because we are overwhelmingly at one with the majority of the British people who now want a clean Brexit and an end to the present uncertainty. It is time for all her ministers to back her too and to end the confusion they are fomenting in government.”
Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, said last week it was “very difficult” to see how staying in a customs union would allow the UK to have an “independent trade policy” after Brexit.
This article was written by Rajeev Syal, for theguardian.com on Sunday 4th February 2018 13.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010