Downing Street has defended Theresa May’s Brexit blueprint after a warning that continuing with it could cause a “catastrophic split” in the Conservative Party.
Former Brexit minister Steve Baker said he was “gravely concerned” about a potential schism in Tory ranks if the Prime Minister did not change direction.
After Number 10 and supporters of the Prime Minister leapt the defence of her Chequers plan, she also received a boost from the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, with 200 days to go until Britain leaves the EU.
He told a conference in Slovenia on Monday that it was “realistic” to believe a Brexit deal can be agreed between the UK and EU in the next six to eight weeks.
Mr Baker, a leading figure in the pro-Brexit Tory European Research Group, said the party’s annual conference in Birmingham, starting on September 30, could prove a decisive moment as Mrs May is forced to acknowledge the scale of grassroots opposition to her proposals.
“If we come out of conference with her hoping to get Chequers through on the back of Labour votes, I think the EU negotiators would probably understand that if that were done, the Tory party would suffer the catastrophic split which thus far we have managed to avoid,” he told the Press Association.
Number 10 said critics of the plan had yet to come forward with a credible alternative which would avoid the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
“Chequers is the only plan on the table which will deliver on the will of the British people while avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
“The Prime Minister is working hard to secure a deal and hopes all MPs will be able to support it.”
Justice Secretary David Gauke said “an overwhelming majority within the Conservative Party” backed the Government’s approach, telling the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “There isn’t an alternative credible plan out there.”
Number 10 said Mrs May would be chairing a special meeting of the Cabinet on Thursday to discuss the preparations for a no-deal Brexit if Britain fails to secure an agreement with Brussels.
It is expected to coincide with the publication of the latest tranche of technical papers on the no-deal preparations across a range of sectors.
Mr Barnier struck a more optimistic note while speaking at the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia, saying: “If we are realistic, I want to reach an agreement on the first stage of the negotiation, which is the Brexit treaty, within six or eight weeks.
“The treaty is clear, we have two years to reach an agreement before they leave… in March 2019.
“That means that taking into account the time necessary for the ratification process in the House of Commons on one side, the European Parliament and the Council on the other side, we must reach an agreement before the beginning of November. I think it is possible.”
Mr Baker’s intervention came amid continuing anger over Boris Johnson’s claim that the Chequers plan, which would see Britain maintain a “common rule book” with the EU for trade in goods and agriculture, was tantamount to wrapping a “suicide vest” around the British constitution.
After his comments in a Sunday newspaper article were widely condemned by ministers, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “This is not language the Prime Minister would choose to use.
“Beyond that I don’t propose to give this article any further oxygen.”
No 10 was forced to deny any involvement in a reported dossier detailing the former foreign secretary’s private indiscretions, with her spokesman saying the claim was “categorically untrue and offensive”.
The claims came amid weekend newspaper reports linking Mr Johnson – who is still thought to harbour leadership ambitions – with ex-Tory communications director Carrie Symonds after it was announced he and his wife are to divorce.
The Sunday Times said the dossier was originally drawn up by an aide to Mrs May at the time of the 2016 Tory leadership contest but was not used after Mr Johnson dropped out.