The Tory civil war over Europe spilled into the Commons this afternoon, with backbenchers urging the Government to stand up to a small group of hard Brexiteers.
After a weekend of attacks on the Government’s Brexit plans and the Chancellor by high-profile anti-EU MPs, Remain-backing Tories urged ministers to stand up to the “fringe” group in order to deliver a “sensible” outcome to negotiations.
HuffPost UK has learned some MPs are so furious with the behaviour of their colleagues the Tory whips have been asked to take action against the dissenters – who appear to be seemingly untouchable as they tour TV studios calling for the Chancellor to be sacked or questioning the Government’s Brexit strategy.
One MP told HuffPost UK May’s leadership is so weak the party was in “Lord of the Flies territory” with a total breakdown of discipline.
The resentment was laid bare in the Commons this afternoon during an urgent question tabled by veteran Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash on the Government’s plan for a two-year “implementation period” after March 2019.
Former Business Minister Anna Soubry, one of the most vocal anti-Brexit voices on the Tory benches, was heckled by MPs on her own side as she quizzed Minster for Exiting the EU Robin Walker.
“When is the Government going to stand up against the Hard Brexiteers who mainly inhabit these benches? There’s only about 35 of them…” she said, before fellow Tory MP Michael Fabricant shouted back at her: “No, there aren’t!
Soubry continued, telling Walker the Government needed to “see them off and make sure we get a sensible Brexit, because if we don’t we will sleep walk into a disastrous Brexit for generations to come.”
Conservative MP for East Renfrewshire Paul Masterton got to his feet to ask for reassurance that “the Government’s policy will not be dictated by fringe groups either in this place or outside it but by the national interest.”
Walker answered simply: “Yes”.
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The exchanges came just over 24 hours after Tory MP Nadine Dorries said Chancellor Philip Hammond “needs to go” after he gave a speech saying Brexit would lead to only “very modest” changes to the UK’s current relationship with the EU.
Dorries call for Hammond to be sacked was echoed by fellow backbencher Andrew Bridgen, who said: “Hammond has stepped out of line and needs to go.”
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith accused Hammond of “sniping from the sidelines” and “contradicting Government policy”.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Brexit-backing European Research Group of Tory MPs, told ITV’s Peston on Sunday he was “being as loyal as I can possibly be” to the Chancellor, before adding that while he had “a view” on whether the Hammong should be sacked, it was not his role as a “junior backbencher” to give it in public.
He also claimed the planned transition phase looked “more like a plank than a bridge”.
The outbreak of attacks on Hammond – with seemingly no reprisal from the Tory whips – led one senior MP to tell HuffPost UK: “Sadly, I think we are entering Lord of the Flies territory because the leadership is weak, so any discipline measures will have no effect.”
As MPs were grilling the Government on the planned implementation period after March 2019, Brexit Secretary David Davis was giving evidence to a Lords Committee on the same subject.
He said the planned two-year transition period would be “not exactly the same as membership, but it’s very, very similar”.
But the Brexit secretary told the House of Lords EU committee that Rees-Mogg was wrong to argue the UK should have simply extended its membership of the EU rather than move to a “implementation period”.
Davis said EU membership prevented the UK from signing trade deals with other countries. “We want to get out from under that particular duty,” he said.
He admitted that the EU was yet to agree to this. “There will be an argument about the right to negotiate free trade arrangements,” he said.
Rees-Mogg has claimed a transition period will make Britain a “vassal state” of the EU, as Brussels will be able to impose new laws on UK without the British government having had any say in shaping them.
Davis admitted today there would be a row between London and Brussels over whether the UK would be able to “object” to new EU laws passed during transition that it had no say in creating.
He also dismissed as “bogus” reports the British government wanted to have a three-year transition. “We are not talking about extending it to three years,” he said.