Theresa May secures fragile unity with customs union amendment and Brexit plea to Tory backbenchers

Catherine Neilan
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Theresa May Attends PMQs In The House Of Commons
"She has made this thing a confidence motion... go against it and you are basically declaring open war" (Source: Getty)

Theresa May appears to have secured fragile agreement among her MPs to back her ahead of a series of critical votes through an 11th hour meeting and a new customs amendment.

The last-minute amendment proposes the government seek a “customs arrangement as part of the framework for the future relationship” with the EU after Brexit.

Tabled by Oliver Letwin, it was backed by Remainers including Nicky Morgan and Stephen Hammond as well arch Leavers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Bill Cash.

It followed a last-ditch meeting with the Prime Minister and her backbenchers, telling would-be rebels to consider “the message parliament will send to Brussels this week” as she urged them to back the government against the Lords’ amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill.

Addressing the backbench 1922 committee of Tory MPs on Monday night, she told them: “I am confident I can get a deal that allows us to strike our own trade deals while having a border with the EU which is as frictionless as possible. But if the Lords amendments are allowed to stand, that negotiating position will be undermined."

But the real message was more about the party’s own position with May as leader, reminding them of her pledge one year ago after the disastrous election result to “fix this” - and urging MPs not to rock the boat now.

One backbencher told City A.M. “She has made this thing in effect a confidence motion. It would now be seen as almost trying to bring down the PM if you voted against the bill tomorrow.”

“It’s entirely that simple - everyone knows Ken Clarke will stick to his position - but more broadly it’s about the party really uniting. If something is that important and you go against it, you are basically declaring open war.”

One Remain-supporting backbencher agreed it was unlikely there would be a rebellion over this bill - but said the can had simply been kicked down the road.

“This week is not the right time to take a stand. The customs union amendment isn’t strong enough and we can’t win on the EEA. For me, the big debate comes next month under the Customs Bill and the Trade Bill. It’s all about tactics and strategy - you’ve got to have the fight when it’s on something that will make change.”

However several MPs bemoaned the lack of detail in May’s message to them. “She said nothing she couldn’t have said on the 10 O’Clock News,” one said.

Another prominent backbencher added: “There were no specifics, no content, no detail on the white was very much her style.

“A lot of MPs were - probably teed up by the Whips’ Office - saying she was doing a great job. But there was no further clarity.

“It’s just a case of getting through this week, so we can get onto the next saga.”

Another agreed. “It’s very much about survival - she wants to get to the European Council, and we will see how she does there. After that, who knows.”

While MPs were planning to unite behind May, there are still grumbles - not least about the customs union fudge.

“What does that even mean? It’s just switching the word union with the word arrangement. No one knows the difference. These are all things we have made up.”