The next Conservative leader must immediately extend Britain’s EU membership and draw up a new Brexit deal with Labour MPs, a key powerbroker in the party’s leadership race has demanded.
In a significant intervention that will be seen as a warning to candidates embracing a no-deal Brexit, Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, who is regarded as the leading pro-European voice in the cabinet, calls on all contenders to concede that Britain will not leave at the end of October and start work on a new deal with Brussels.
Writing for the Observer, she warns candidates they will lose should they “enter into another battle with parliament over no deal on 31 October”. She says the new leader will have a “brief opportunity to reset the political agenda” with the EU, which should be used to craft a deal that enough backbench Labour MPs would back.
“We need to start being honest,” she writes. “The starting point is that we are not leaving on 31 October with a deal – parliament will block a no-deal Brexit, and there isn’t time to do a revised deal.
“Many good Conservative colleagues will raise their hands in despair at my suggestion that we engage with Labour backbenchers but I know there are many who wish to deliver on the result of the referendum.”
Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Andrea Leadsom, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and Esther McVey are among the candidates who have suggested they could back no deal. Rudd’s remarks come after she met Johnson, the frontrunner, in an attempt to find common ground and persuade him to back away from attempting to leave with no deal at the end of October .
The pair parted ways with Johnson still committed to leaving the EU without any further Brexit extension, whether a deal could be agreed or not. It is understood that Rudd could not commit to serving in a top cabinet job should he win and lead Britain out of the EU with no deal.
Michael Gove, who launched his first campaign video this weekend, is pressing to become the candidate best-placed to avoid no deal. It leaves party moderates wrestling over whether they can bring themselves to back Johnson. While many see him as less ideological than Raab and more capable of winning an election, his embrace of no deal is an insurmountable stumbling block for many.
“It’s all about making sure he is surrounded by sensible people,” said one MP who has decided to back Johnson.
This week will see all the candidates appear at a hustings of the One Nation Caucus of moderate Tory MPs. Rudd calls on them to face up to the realities of the “Brexit puzzle”, adding: “It should go without saying that every candidate is patriotic. So being told to just ‘believe in Britain’ is not a substitute for engaging with the situation we find ourselves in.”
It comes as moderates fear that the party is veering closer towards a no-deal Brexit under pressure from the success of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. According to an Opinium poll for the Observer, the Brexit party has surged into first place for the first time in a Westminster poll. Its support increased by two points to 26%, with the Tories third on 17%.
Such a result would see Farage form the biggest party in parliament, with the Tories losing hundreds of seats.
Johnson has the strongest support among Conservative supporters to be the party’s next leader, the poll found. While 24% want Johnson, the other standout choice is Gove, with 14%.
Meanwhile, there are continuing concerns that hardline Brexit supporters have been joining the Conservative party in order to have a vote in the forthcoming leadership election. Research conducted by the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum has found dozens of Brexit party supporters who openly claim to have joined the Conservative party in order to vote in a leadership contest.
Nick Boles, who faced a deselection attempt before leaving the Tories to sit as an “independent progressive conservative”, has claimed that there has been a “systematic operation of infiltration of the Conservative party by Ukip and Ukip sympathisers”.
Yesterday, Bracknell Tory MP Phillip Lee, who backs a second referendum, lost a no-confidence vote among his local party. He issued a defiant statement, stating: “We will not be forced into taking a decision one way or the other by this orchestrated, destructive campaign from outside the party.”
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