LONDON — Brexiteer warnings that the Conservative Party could split if Theresa May tries to get her Brexit deal through parliament with Labour votes are a “hollow threat,” former party chairman Caroline Spelman said.
With no sign of concessions from the EU on the Northern Ireland backstop that might win round Brexiteer Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party, speculation is growing that May could make major changes to her Brexit plan, such as committing to a customs union, to persuade Labour MPs to back it.
However, several members of the European Research Group of pro-Brexit Conservative MPs have warned that such a move could put serious strains on party unity.
Jacob Rees-Mogg has compared the scenario to that faced by 19th century Tory leader Robert Peel, who in 1846 split the party after repealing the Corn Laws (which protected British agriculture from foreign imports) with opposition votes. The split kept the party from winning an electoral majority for three decades.
But Spelman, a former Cabinet minister and party chairman whose amendment opposing a no-deal Brexit won a parliamentary majority last week, told POLITICO that talk of an historic rupture was “premature.” She said she wanted May to win concessions from Brussels on the backstop, but suggested that reaching out across the aisle could provide another way forward.
“Especially as a former party chairman I would like to see the party unite around a Conservative prime minister’s deal” — Caroline Spelman
“[Split threats] might sell newspapers, but in practice, new parties and party splits in my political lifetime have usually fizzled out,” said Spelman, who served as Tory party chair under David Cameron from 2007 to 2009.
Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system makes it very difficult for small or new parties to get a foothold in parliament. For example, at the 2015 election, UKIP won nearly 3.9 million votes (a share of 12.6 percent) but won just one seat in the House of Commons.
Any Conservatives thinking of breaking away over concessions to Labour on a customs union would also struggle to explain how their position was consistent with the party’s 2017 election manifesto, Spelman added.
“It’s a hollow threat, because every Conservative MP was elected on a manifesto of finding a customs arrangement with the EU … No Conservative, whatever their allegiance on Europe, can deny the fact that they got elected on a promise to sort out a customs arrangement with the EU,” she said.
The manifesto says the party will leave the single market and the EU’s existing customs union, but commits to a non-specific “free trade and customs agreement” with the bloc.
Spelman said commitments that the U.K. would retain workplace and environmental standards at least as high as the EU’s, while looking again at the customs arrangements aspect of the deal, were “the kind of area … that might help bring a consensus behind the deal.”
However, she said her preferred option was for the House of Commons to back May’s deal and said she hoped the prime minister would succeed in her “quest for an amendment on the Irish backstop” to persuade Conservative Brexiteers and the DUP to back the deal.
“Especially as a former party chairman I would like to see the party unite around a Conservative prime minister’s deal,” she said. However, she said May might not succeed in persuading Brexiteers and the DUP, so supported talks which have taken place “in parallel” with Labour and their union backers.
Spelman’s non-binding amendment urging the government against a no-deal Brexit narrowly passed by 318 votes to 310 with Labour support. A different amendment from Labour’s Yvette Cooper which would have given the House of Commons a mechanism to delay Brexit and actually prevent no-deal, was defeated 321 to 298, when some Labour MPs with heavily Leave-voting constituencies refused to back it.
“My amendment had the effect of bringing Jeremy Corbyn to the table — what it was designed to do really” — Caroline Spelman
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said after the vote that because Spelman’s amendment had passed he was prepared to meet with May, and has since sent a letter to the prime minister setting out Labour’s conditions for supporting the Brexit deal, including a permanent customs union with the EU.
“My amendment had the effect of bringing Jeremy Corbyn to the table — what it was designed to do really. That’s important because for some time he hasn’t been all that clear what it is he actually wants,” said Spelman, speaking the day before Corbyn sent his letter.
The former environment secretary did not rule out backing a Cooper-like amendment aimed at delaying Brexit, if one is put forward at a future date. She added that it was “not impossible” that a majority would back such a plan to delay Brexit “as the deadline approaches.”
However, she said she would prefer not to see a delay. “I represent a manufacturing region where we’ve already lost 7,500 jobs, Brexit-related, in the past 12 months,” she said. “Delay costs money, delay kills business. That’s the reason I’m not keen on delaying.”
This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email email@example.com for a complimentary trial.