Will Theresa May heed Steve Baker’s warning she is risking Tory break-up?

Steve Baker just told me that the Prime Minister’s seeming ambition to push through a version of her Chequers Brexit plan risks a break-up of the Conservatives.

The former Brexit minister compared this potential split to the great reconfiguration of parties in the battle between free-traders and protectionists over the Corn Laws in the first half of the nineteenth century.

He thinks this means the PM will see the error of her ways, shred Chequers and adopt a version of the free-trade plan favoured by Mr Baker and the 80 Tory MPs he sees as close allies and which others view as already a Brexiter party-within-a-party.

But what if he is wrong and there is binary fission of the Tories?

Will Theresa May continue ahead with her Chequers Brexit plan? Credit: PA

I have to say that other Tory MPs think the PM cannot possibly bin Chequers without simultaneously resigning such would be her humiliation - and therefore she will strap herself to the Facilitated Customs Arrangement and the Common EU Rulebook for goods like a person overboard in the mother of all gales.

In other words Baker, David Davis and Boris Johnson will have to call her bluff sooner or later - either by triggering a leadership election or resigning the Tory whip.

What is striking is that the risk of such a break up is equally acute in Labour - as largely Remainy centrist Labour MPs become more and more isolated from a Labour leadership they see as moving too slowly towards supporting another EU referendum and still failing to properly understand why anti-Semitism is a life-or-death problem for their party?

So the two main parties currently look like four parties held together largely by little more than fear of jumping off the top diving board, but some will jump.

But what Baker’s intervention also does is increase the probability that there is another referendum.

Because if he blocks - via a parliamentary vote before Christmas - whatever (if any) version of her Chequers plan the PM negotiates with the rest of the EU, the default for the UK becomes a no-deal Brexit.

Boris Johnson is thought to be certain that Brexit would triumph again in an EU referendum. Credit: PA

Baker and his colleagues are not scared of that, but arguably a clear majority of MPs are terrified of no-deal, for the reasons I set out yesterday. In those circumstance, Parliament could well choose to put the Brexit question back to the country in a referendum - and what is striking is the number of Tory MPs who now tell me they see asking “we the people” again as the least worst option among the grimmest of Hobson’s choices.

Who is that shouting from the back?

Oh it’s the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson - who has apparently told colleagues that if there is another referendum he is confident of winning it for Brexit a second time.

And yes, Brenda from Bristol, I know you aren’t happy.