Tory Chequers plan critics back Theresa May as pressure on Prime Minister continues to increase

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand

Two of the biggest critics of Theresa May's Chequers Brexit plan from within the Conservative Party have backed her as Prime Minister, as pressure on her premiership continues to increase.

Head of the European Research Group (ERG), a group of Tory Brexiteer MPs, Jacob Rees-Mogg branded a growing plot by some Conservative MPs to oust Mrs May as "not helpful", adding she is a "fantastically dutiful Prime Minister".

Mr Rees-Mogg's comments came after the ERG spent nearly an hour war-gaming how to oust Mrs May at a private meeting on Tuesday evening (Mr Rees-Mogg was not present), while "leadership issues" were raised at a dinner for MPs with the Prime Minister's senior aides.

However, during Wednesday's session of Prime Minister's Questions, Mrs May was not challenged on her leadership position, including by the opposition leader who instead attacked the Government's welfare reforms.

Speaking about her Chequers Brexit plan, Mrs May assured the Commons that it would deliver "on the result of the referendum, ensure that we take control of our money, our borders and laws, but do so in a way that protects jobs and livelihoods across the United Kingdom".

She continued that it would also ensure a "healthy manufacturing industry" would remain in Britain in the future.

While no mention of the ERG's alternative Brexit proposals were made during PMQs, Mrs May appeared to attempt to appease Brexiteers when she told those assembled that if the UK did not get agree a trade deal with the EU, then Britain might not pay its £39 billion divorce bill.

  • Watch as Mrs May takes questions from the Commons during PMQs

Rather than attacking the leader, as many in her own party have done, Jeremy Corbyn accused Mrs May of “pouring petrol” on society’s burning injustices with the Government’s flagship Universal Credit welfare reforms.

The Labour leader reeled off a list of organisations which believe the policy is “flawed and failing hundreds of thousands of people” who are working and unemployed.

He told MPs that the policy was “taking money away from families and putting more children into poverty”.

Prior to PMQs, the ERG unveiled its alternative Brexit proposals, which they believe could allow the UK to leave the EU’s single market and customs union without the need for a hard border in Ireland.

Downing Street said it would not be considering the ERG's proposals since "the plan put forward by Chequers is the only credible and negotiable solution".

Meanwhile Josh Hardie, CBI deputy director-general, said the ERG's proposals were "a disappointing effort" as they are "too superficial to be of use in practice.

"If this is the ERG's road to Brexit, the final destination is disastrous for jobs and prosperity."

Speaking at the unveiling, Mr Rees-Mogg said he "supported" Mrs May, while fellow ERG member and former Brexit secretary David Davis added that Mrs May was a "very good Prime Minister... and she should stay in place because we need stability and good Government to the backdrop of what we're doing over the next six months".

The pair threw their support behind Mrs May saying they simply disagreed with her Chequers plan "on one issue", and it was simply "the policy" rather than "the person" which needed changing.

Prime Minister Theresa May is fighting for her political life. Credit: PA

ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston said that the DUP is supporting the ERG’s solution to the Ireland border question, which is "surely chilling for a PM who rubbishes that solution and whose grip on power depends on DUP support".

In a statement, the DUP called the ERG's proposal a "positive and timely development" which put forward "sensible and practical measures which can ensure there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic".

While some Conservative MPs are openly plotting against Mrs May, others remain staunchly behind her.

On Wednesday, Michael Gove, dismissed Tuesday's plotting as "loose talk" and urged his colleagues to get behind the Chequers plan and give Mrs May "full support".

The Environment Secretary repeatedly stated that Mrs May "is our leader and she's doing a great job" and that she made an "excellent" Prime Minister.

Addressing fears that Mrs May would come under attack over the Chequers plan at the Tory party conference later this month, Mr Gove said he was "confident that the Prime Minister will go into the Conservative Party conference and beyond, securing a good Brexit deal for Britain and continuing to ensure the country enjoys good economic growth and we take advantage of Brexit".

However, Mrs May is not just facing discontent over her Chequers plan from within her own party, business leaders have also voiced dissatisfaction.

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary said he expected the Prime Minister to be forced out of office before the end of 2018, and that Mrs May would be replaced by a Brexiteer, who would complain there is not enough time left to negotiate a good Brexit deal, and so will agree to a transition period.

However, he added that a no deal scenario would be the most likely outcome.

On Tuesday evening, around 50 MPs discussed ways and means of getting rid of the Prime Minister at a gathering of the European Research Group (ERG), Peston reported.

A number of MPs told how they had already submitted letters of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, and others discussed plans to follow suit.

If 48 letters are handed over, a vote of no confidence would be triggered.

Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is chair of the ERG, which on Tuesday evening, discussed ways and means of getting rid of the Prime Minister. Credit: PA

While also on Tuesday evening, at a dinner with the Prime Minister’s senior aides, MPs raised “leadership issues”.

When asked by ITV News after the dinner if there would be a coup, Tory MP Andrew Bridgen said that people would have to "wait and see".

He told ITV News: “I’ve been told that she will get a full appraisal of comments that were made over the dinner.”

Asked if there would be a coup, he replied: “I think we will just have to wait and see.

“I hope that the Prime Minister will take on board what she’s heard and chuck Chequers.”

Following the same dinner, Conservative Brexiteer MP John Baron told ITV News: “We were discussing leadership issues.”

While Tories openly plotted a coup against Mrs May, Downing Street reiterated that Chequers was “the only serious, credible and negotiable plan which is on the table which both delivers on the will of the British people and which prevents the imposition of a hard border in Northern Ireland”.

Discontent in the Tory ranks was further evident on Tuesday, when former foreign minister Boris Johnson - who quit his position over the Chequers plan - described Mrs May's Brexit blueprint as "worse than the status quo" for British business.

Speaking at an Economists for Free Trade (EFT) event attended by a battalion of Tory Brexit big-hitters including Mr Rees-Mogg, former Brexit secretary David Davis - who also quit over the Chequers plan - and his ex-deputy Steve Baker, former party leader Iain Duncan Smith and ex-Defra Secretary Owen Paterson, Mr Johnson said leaving the EU while continuing to accept the single market legislation would expose businesses to rules that may go against their interests.

“That seems to me to be a particular economic risk in Chequers and makes it substantially worse than the status quo,” he said.