LONDON – Pro-Remain Conservative MPs are urging Prime Minister Theresa May to sack a minister and an aide to Chancellor Philip Hammond over a letter passed between pro-Brexit Tories calling for a hard Brexit.
May is under pressure to punish Brexit minister Steve Baker and Treasury aide Suella Fernandes for encouraging Eurosceptic Tory MPs to support a letter that was circulated among pro-Brexit colleagues via a Whatsapp group last week, the Times newspaper reports.
The letter, allegedly signed by at least a dozen Tory MPs from the pro-Brexit European Research Group, pressures Prime Minister into delivering a clean break from the EU without the “standstill” interim period advocated by Chancellor Hammond.
The letter says Britain should not make any payments to the EU budget during any transition period and must be able to sign new free trade deals from the moment it drops out of the EU at the end of March 2019.
These demands, if met, would lead to what has been dubbed a “cliff-edge” Brexit, as Britain would be unable to both remain in the customs union and retain full access to the European single market during a transition period. “In short, when we leave in 2019 we need to make sure we are well and truly out,” the letter, first leaked to national newspapers over the weekend, says.
Unnamed members of the parliamentary Conservative Party believe both Baker and Fernandes should be sacked from their positions for breaching collective responsibility – the convention that all members of a government must publicly support government policy and positions. The demands listed in the letter go beyond what May has said regarding what the government aims to achieve in Brexit talks. A government source told the Times that the letter was aimed at Hammond, despite Fernandes being part of his team.
Another source said: “In normal times Steve Baker’s encouragement to sign this letter would be a sacking offence, and it should be. However, it’s harder to see Suella’s comments – which are aimed at the chancellor – mean she can survive in that job. She is in more danger.”
A spokesman for Baker last night claimed the minister did not encourage colleagues to sign the letter. He said: “Steve was happy to welcome the support of MPs in his first dispatch box experience. It’s categorically untrue to suggest he endorsed this letter.”
Conservative MP Stephen Hammond said it was “completely unacceptable” for a minister or private secretary to support a letter which is at odds with government policy and called on his colleagues to consider resigning.
“The European Research Group letter is an unacceptable attempt to hinder negotiations and jeopardise the government. It is entirely at odds with stated policy, which colleagues should be supporting, not undermining. It would therefore be completely unacceptable for any minister or parliamentary private secretary to support it or encourage others to sign.
“They should either sign and resign or stay and support the government,” he said.