Three anti-Brexit Tory MPs defect to the Independent Group, claiming the Conservatives have been infiltrated by 'Blukip': Brexit News for Thursday 21 February

Three anti-Brexit Tory MPs defect to the Independent Group, claiming the Conservatives have been infiltrated by 'Blukip': Brexit News for Thursday 21 February
Sign up here to receive the daily news briefing in your inbox every morning with exclusive insight from the BrexitCentral team

Three anti-Brexit Tory MPs defect to the Independent Group, claiming the Conservatives have been infiltrated by ‘Blukip’…

Three Conservative MPs have resigned to join the new Independent Group, saying the party’s “failure” to stand up to hardline Brexiteers has pushed them to leave. Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry have joined eight Labour MPs in the new splinter group. The Independent Group now has the same number of MPs as the Liberal Democrat party and one more than the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Ms Soubry said she decided to quit because the Conservative Party was in the grip of a “Purple Momentum” or “BLUKIP”, with local associations now being “infiltrated by entryists trying to remove rebel MPs”. Announcing their resignations, the three MPs wrote to Theresa May to say: “We no longer feel we can remain in the Party of a Government whose policies and priorities are so firmly in the grip of the ERG and DUP. Brexit has re-defined the Conservative Party – undoing all the efforts to modernise it. There has been a dismal failure to stand up to the hard line ERG which operates openly as a party within a party, with its own leader, whip and policy.” Mrs May said she was “saddened” by their decision to leave the party but added:  “I am determined that under my leadership the Conservative Party will always offer the decent, moderate and patriotic politics that the people of this country deserve.” – Telegraph (£)

…with Anna Soubry urging Tories to put their country first and thwart a no-deal Brexit…

In a devastating attack on her former party, the Broxtowe MP said the Conservatives were now being controlled by anti-EU zealots in parliament and local associations were being taken over by a “purple momentum” – a reference to Ukip’s colour scheme. Soubry, who as a business minister attended Cabinet meetings under David Cameron, urged current members of the government to put their country first and resign in order to stop a ‘no deal’ Brexit. The comments came at a press conference to mark the resignations of Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen from the Conservative Party, with the trio joining the Independent Group of eight former Labour MPs which materialised this week. Speaking in Westminster, Soubry said: “Overwhelmingly the majority of associations are being infiltrated by a nationally orchestrated entryism, blatantly designed to remove rebel MPs, who they label traitors.” She added: “Even though the party chairman is on the traitors list, he’s failed to provide the firm political leadership that is demanded.” Soubry centred many of her remarks on the Brexit negotiations, and appealed directly to those in the Conservative government opposed to ‘no deal’ to take drastic action. – City A.M.

…and Brussels views Theresa May’s predicament ‘with growing despair’

The Conservative defections and splintering of Theresa May’s fragile position in parliament is viewed with growing despair in Brussels. The prime minister will be asked what the latest developments mean during talks with Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, in Brussels tonight. European Union officials, diplomats and governments are increasingly bleak that her diminishing majority and authority in the Commons means failure for her attempts to get the Brexit withdrawal agreement over the line. The resignations mean that Mrs May’s position in parliament has been weakened even further at a time when she is promising the EU that new legal assurances will help her to win a crucial Brexit vote next week. As well as whittling down her tiny majority, which depends on the hardline DUP, there are fears that party discipline on both sides, Conservative and Labour, is falling apart. – The Times (£)

May hopes to win ‘significant progress’ towards a new deal in the coming days…

Theresa May hopes to win “significant progress” towards a new Brexit deal in the coming days, allowing her to ask the commons to show backing for her strategy early next week. Over the next four days she aims to make headway with EU negotiators on a new approach, before attempting to win support from key European leaders at a summit on Sunday. Claims that the prime minister may put a full new deal to parliament early next week were downplayed by government insiders, but it is likely that Ms May will table a motion asking MPs to back her approach as she takes it forward – something that would show Brussels she has the support of a working majority in the commons. The prime minister met EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday night to begin the new push for progress in the UK’s Brexit negotiations. A Downing Street spokesman said: “Subsequent to that you can expect the [Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay] and the attorney general [Geoffrey Cox] to be having a detailed discussions with Michel Barnier in coming days.” – Independent

…after May and Juncker dived into the Brexit fine print yesterday…

Brexit, and the leaders trying to make it happen in an orderly fashion, have now entered the realm of fine print and minutiae. But they still don’t have a deal. After a meeting Wednesday evening, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker issued a joint statement pledging to continue exploring “alternative arrangements” to the controversial Northern Ireland backstop and “legal assurance” about its temporary nature. Notably, the statement focused on changes to the Political Declaration, the non-legally binding document that accompanies the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement. It is still unclear how far May and Juncker’s negotiators will get. Officials said the process is inching forward — and in focusing on the Political Declaration it appears that May has taken a crucial step in acknowledging that the Withdrawal Agreement agreed in November would not be reopened. That is significant because May’s Brexiteer backbenchers and the Democratic Unionist Party MPs who support her government have been adamant publicly that only changes to the legally binding document itself will suffice to bring them on board. The so-called Brady amendment, which was narrowly passed by the House of Commons and  launched the prime minister’s efforts to renegotiate the backstop, specified that it should be replaced by “alternative arrangements.” – Politico

…and there is speculation about striking a ‘deal in the desert’ when EU leaders meet at Sharm el-Sheikh this weekend…

Theresa May is to fly 2,500 miles this weekend in a bid to strike a “deal in the desert” on Brexit at a summit in the luxury Egyptian resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh. The prime minister will hold talks aimed at breaking the Brexit deadlock with top European leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, during an EU summit with Arab leaders. The 5,000-mile round trip, a five-hour flight each way, will come after Mrs May meets European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels and ahead of more Brexit votes in the House of Commons next week. The prime minister was not initially planning to attend the two-day summit in the resort, which is between the desert of the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea and known for its sheltered sandy beaches, clear waters and coral reefs. But now that more than 20 European leaders have signed up for the summit she plans to use the occasion to press her demands for an alternative to the Brexit backstop in her EU withdrawal agreement. – Sky News
Theresa May set for Egyptian showdown as Brexit talks begin chaotic end-game – Express

…although May allies play down talk of a deal at the Sharm summit

Theresa May will meet EU leaders at a summit in Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday but her allies insist she won’t bring back a new deal to present to MPs next week. The prime minister held talks with Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, in Brussels last night and is expected to meet Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and other leaders at a two-day meeting of the EU and the Arab League in Egypt. Geoffrey Cox, the attorney-general, and Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, will hold talks with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, today to discuss further changes to the backstop for the Irish border, which will be needed for the government to win a Commons majority. Mrs May’s allies were keen to play down speculation that she will give MPs another “meaningful vote” on her deal early next week. Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, irritated Downing Street by talking up the chances of a breakthrough in a speech in Germany. Without concrete progress Mrs May has little chance of preventing parliament from taking control of the Brexit timetable. She has been repeatedly warned that about 20 ministers, including at least four in her cabinet, are prepared to vote for an amendment tabled by Yvette Cooper, the Labour MP, that removes the threat of leaving the EU without a deal on March 29. – The Times (£)

Jeremy Corbyn heads to Brussels to give the EU his vision of a Brexit deal

Jeremy Corbyn is heading to Brussels to discuss Brexit with EU leaders, claiming he will work with other political parties to prevent no deal. In talks taking place 24 hours after Theresa May’s latest meeting with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, he is accusing her of trying to blackmail MPs. During his visit, the Labour leader will meet the Commission ‘s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, secretary general Martin Selmayr and the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt. Mr Corbyn says he plans to discuss options for breaking the Brexit deadlock and to make clear to the Brussels team that there is no majority in the Commons for a no deal outcome. But to the dismay of pro-Remain MPs campaigning for a second referendum, including the eight Labour MPs who left the party this week, Mr Corbyn has no plans to discuss the prospect of a so-called People’s Vote. Accompanied by the Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, Shadow Attorney General Shami Chakrabarti and the Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long Bailey, he says they will discuss Labour’s proposals for finding a way through the Brexit deadlock. – Sky News

Michael Gove accuses Philip Hammond of failing to prepare Britain for a no-deal Brexit

Michael Gove accused Philip Hammond of failing to prepare Britain for a no-deal Brexit during fractious exchanges at a Cabinet meeting, The Telegraph has been told. According to one source the Environment Secretary said the Chancellor had failed to release funding for no-deal preparations early enough, hampering preparations. Another source said Mr Gove had argued that HMRC should be doing more to help businesses prepare for a no-deal Brexit. His comments, during a Cabinet sub-committee on Wednesday afternoon, come after a series of clashes between the two men over no-deal. Mr Gove and Mr Hammond are at loggerheads over whether agricultural imports should be subject to tariffs in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Theresa May last night met Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, in Brussels in an attempt to reach a breakthrough over the Irish backstop. – Telegraph (£)

EU medicines agency cannot break 25-year London lease over Brexit

The European Medicines Agency has lost a legal battle in which it claimed that it ought to be able to get out of a £500 million rent bill for its London headquarters because of Brexit. A High Court judge dismissed the agency’s claim that its 25-year lease of offices in Canary Wharf would be legally “frustrated” as a result of Brexit. Frustration is a doctrine under English law whereby an event occurs that fundamentally changes the performance of a contract so that it would be unjust to make the parties continue to perform it. No tenant has successfully argued that they should be able to terminate their lease early on the basis of frustration. The ruling represents a significant victory for Canary Wharf Group, the landlord, which took the agency to court over the claim in order to secure certainty for its shareholders and lenders in advance of the UK’s departure from the European Union on March 29. The decision will be a relief for the UK property industry, as a ruling in favour of the medicines agency could have opened the floodgates for other companies to wriggle out of multimillion-pound property contracts. – The Times (£)

Michael Deacon: Remainers are gleeful. This is their very own version of Brexit

As the two main parties shake and splutter, Remainers are in raptures. Well, of course they are. This, after all, is their very own version of Brexit. That’s the psychology of it. Whether they’re ex-Labour or ex-Tory, these Remain MPs have suddenly grasped the gleeful, defiant joy of leaving. Of sticking up two fingers at a vast, arrogant monolith that in their eyes treated them with contempt, and ignored their concerns. After years of pent-up resentment, they’ve decided to have done with it, and just walk out. And now, like Leavers in summer 2016, they’re riding the high, the righteous rush of rebellion. They’ve chosen to be free. Sovereign. Independent. Deep down, no doubt, they know it’s a gamble. That in the short term, what they’ve done will cause disruption, even chaos, and very possibly cost them their jobs. But they don’t care. They’re ignoring Project Fear, and leaving anyway – partly for the sheer angry thrill of it, and partly because they’ve convinced themselves that, in the longer term, the pain will be worth it. – Michael Deacon for the Telegraph (£)

Brendan O’Neill: Independent Group is a space for anti-democrats to war against Brexit

So now we know what the so-called Independent Group is really all about. It is about stopping Brexit. It is about preventing the enactment of the largest democratic vote in British history and frustrating the British people’s vote for independence from the European Union. Yes, taking Orwellianism to dizzy new heights, this new political group poses as “independent” while seeking to overthrow the public’s desire to make Britain a properly independent nation again. Of course many of us suspected this the minute the Independent Group (IG) was unveiled by seven disgruntled Labour MPs, including Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie and Luciana Berger, who has been subjected to vile anti-Semitic abuse by some prejudiced Corbynistas. And yet much of the discussion about IG has focused on its founding members’ disappointment with the direction. Labour has taken under Jeremy Corbyn’s weird leadership. So people could be forgiven for thinking this group was born of Labour’s internal strife rather than of the Brexit issue per se. You can’t be forgiven for thinking that any more. Three Tory MPs, three Tory turncoats, have abandoned Theresa May’s Conservative Party and thrown their lot in with the Independent Group: Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen. – Brendan O’Neill for The Sun

Asa Bennett: The Tory quitters have proved the Independent Group is just a Remainer revolt

The Independent Group can no longer be dismissed as a home for disgruntled anti-Corbynite Labour MPs, as three Tories have joined them: Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston. Brexit has driven them out, they confirmed in a joint statement, blaming Theresa May’s “dismal failure to stand up to the hard-line ERG” and accusing the party of being “in the grip” of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s group. Mr Rees-Mogg could only wish he and his fellow Tory Brexiteers had such control over the Prime Minister given the way she has handled Brexit. Ironically, Ms Allen, Ms Soubry and Dr Wollaston’s departure will help the ERG to tighten its grip. It also makes life easier for Tory Brexiteers in general. These three MPs had previously threatened to resign if Boris Johnson took over as leader – and now that threat is gone. Their decision to join Chuka Umunna’s splinter group is hardly a surprise, given that they have been going around Westminster together lately pushing for another referendum as if they were already a gang of their own. Now, they have made it official. – Asa Bennett for the Telegraph (£)

Allister Heath: Will any political party be able to survive the second act of Brexit?

So that’s that, then. I disagree utterly, profoundly, completely with the Tory defectors’ stance on Brexit but I respect their decision to leave their party – on one narrow level, at least. During periods of great ideological dislocation, a functioning, healthy democracy requires every MP, every activist and every voter to study their conscience, to decide which side they are really on. Yes, Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston stood on a Conservative Party manifesto that was committed to Brexit; and yes, they voted for Article 50. But at a time when hypocrisy is eating away at our putrefying body politic, better for them to leave now than to keep pretending they belong to a party they no longer feel any connection to. Too many MPs live a political lie, striving for power and advancement for the sake of it. They end up as second-rate actors mouthing lines they don’t agree with, voting for policies they detest, rather than as the thrusting social entrepreneurs fighting to create a better world they thought they would be when they entered politics. We can all think of many, including some in the Cabinet, who fall into that category and shouldn’t be able to look at themselves in the mirror. – Allister Heath for the Telegraph (£)

Brexit in Brief

  • Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has a more obvious slot in UK politics than the Independent Group – Patrick Scott for the Telegraph (£)
  • The Tory defectors strengthen the Independent Group, but will have no impact on Brexit – here’s why – John Rentoul for the Independent
  • I’m a liberal Tory and a member of the ERG. How dare the splitters call me an extremist – Michael Fabricant for the Telegraph (£)
  • The powers returning from Brussels to Westminster after EU exit – Express