- Video report by ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston
There is no alternative to Theresa May's Chequers plan, Downing Street has said in the wake of criticism that the Brexit blueprint could result in a “catastrophic split” within the Conservative Party.
With just 200 days to go until the UK leaves the EU, former Brexit minister Steve Baker also warned that the Chequers plan is likely to be overwhelmingly rejected by activists at this month’s Tory conference.
But Mrs May received a boost from the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who told a conference in Slovenia that it was “realistic” to believe a Brexit deal can be agreed between the UK and EU in the next six to eight weeks.
“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," he said
“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.”
Despite Mr Barnier's ambitious declaration, ITV News Political Correspondent Robert Peston has spoken to members of the Cabinet who say the best option now appears to be holding a second referendum.
Mr Baker - who quit as a Brexit minister over the Chequers plan - told ITV News that if the Prime Minister pressed ahead with her blueprint, 80 or more Tory MPs would be prepared to vote against it in the Commons.
It would be "fanciful" to expect Mrs May to secure parliamentary approval for Chequers, the Wycombe MP said, since Labour has already indicated that they too would vote against the deal.
"If this plan is taken forward, and in particular if it is driven forward with opposition support, I just don't see how we would be able to keep the Conservative Party together," Mr Baker told ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston.
While Mr Baker said he would not go so far to say that these splits could lead to the creation of a new political party at present, he warned that the Chequers plan made the Cabinet look "dramatically out of step", since "two-thirds of Conservative Party members in the country" are against Mrs May's proposal.
Mr Baker said that the Prime Minister would lack credibility with Brussels negotiators if she tried to press ahead with the blueprint agreed at her country residence in July without the backing of her party.
In response to Mr Baker's comments, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister said that critics of her 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," Number 10 said.
"The Prime Minister is working hard to secure a deal and hopes all MPs will be able to support it."
While some in the Conservative Party do not support Mrs May's plan, many others do, with Justice Secretary David Gauke claiming "an overwhelming majority" within the Tory Party backed the Government's approach.
"I think that it is absolutely right that the Cabinet and the parliamentary party backs the Prime Minister," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"In challenging circumstances she is the right person to deliver the right deal for this country."
However, Mr Baker maintains that the best option for the party would be to come out of conference united behind a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) solution to Britain’s future relations with the EU.
A FTA would allow tariff-free trade in goods and services – often referred to as Canada-plus – and would also offer co-operation in areas such as security, energy and culture, Mr Baker said.
Although there have been claims that Mrs May would have to stand-down as Prime Minister if she withdrew her Chequers plan, as it would look like a humiliating defeat, Mr Baker said that this would not necessarily be the case, and that instead "the entire country would breathe an enormous sigh of relief and thank God that we could go forward and work constructively with the EU to deliver a deal of the shape which they offered us in March".
He continued that if Mrs May moved to a FTA plan "we'd all be delighted to weigh in behind her and give her absolutely all our support".
Mr Baker also advised that the UK must be willing to walk away from negotiations with the EU with no deal "if that proves necessary", otherwise, Britain's bargaining team would have no bargaining power and would just be "capitulating" to Europe.
He added that many Eurosceptics were happy with the deal the EU already offered the UK in March.
- Watch the interview in full
The former chairman of the Eurosceptic European Research Group warned that Mrs May faces “a massive problem” at the Birmingham Conservative conference because of the scale of opposition to Chequers among grassroots members.
The ERG aims to build momentum behind the FTA option as an alternative to the Chequers Brexit plan, ahead of the September 30 opening of the conference by publishing proposals to resolve the issue of the Northern Irish border.
Mr Baker said that the ERG had decided to hold back on publication of its detailed plan for the UK's future relationship with the EU, in order to focus on the Irish border issue, which he said was the “key to the gate” to a satisfactory agreement.
He declined to give details of proposals on the border, but said that resolving the issue was “a matter of political and administrative will” and there would be “no single magic bullet”.
Mr Baker warned that "if we come out of conference with her [Mrs May] 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 stressed that he was not advocating a change in leadership and said Tory critics of Chequers “do not want to be in a position of conflict with our own Prime Minister” and would give her “absolutely every support” in forging a free trade deal.
Then-Brexit secretary David Davis and former foreign secretary Boris Johnson quit Mrs May's Cabinet over the Chequers plan.
On Sunday, Mr Johnson said Mrs May's Brexit plan had put the UK in a “suicide vest” and handed the detonator to Brussels’ chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
The prominent Brexiteer’s latest assault on the Prime Minister’s handling of negotiations with Brussels will fuel speculation about his own leadership ambitions.
Mr Baker refused to be drawn on whether Mr Johnson's attack on the Prime Minister's plans was to help fuel his leadership ambitions, telling Peston: "Our cause is to change the policy, not the person...
Boris is a great leader, he's clearly committed to leaving the EU, but I don't think he would mind me saying that he would prefer to change the policy than the person."
However, Mr Baker insisted the Conservatives are united behind the Prime Minister, adding that "time is running awfully short for anyone who thinks a leadership contest and a general election is a good idea".
Meanwhile, Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who thwarted Mr Johnson's leadership ambitions when he announced he would stand for the Conservative Party leadership in 2016, said he was "team Theresa" and it was a "privilege to serve in her Cabinet".
While the Tories might be united behind Mrs May as Party leader, they are not united behind the Brexit plan, warning it would cause "catastrophic splits if the Chequers proposals are carried forward,” he said.
“It is absolutely no pleasure whatsoever to me to acknowledge that, but I look at the mood of colleagues and the mood of the Conservative party in the country and I am gravely concerned for the future of our party.
“I am gravely concerned because I recognise that the Labour opposition represents a severe danger to our security and our prosperity.”
If a FTA could not be achieved in time for Brexit Day, March 29, 2019, it would be possible to leave without a deal and negotiate a trade agreement as an independent nation, Mr Baker said.
He continued: “I hope we will emerge from conference with the Party united around the idea that we can either leave having accepted the EU offer or we have to leave with nothing agreed – but that the Chequers proposal is not acceptable as a lasting basis for our partnership.
“What we need out of conference is a new resolve that these are the choices before us.”
Mr Baker said the issue with the Prime Minister's Chequers plan is that it leaves the UK "half in and "half out" of the EU.
“We would be subject to EU interests which we couldn’t control in all those areas where Chequers meant we had made this upfront decision to commit ourselves to whatever law the EU has given us.
“It is not acceptable.”