Agriculture minister Michael Gove on Tuesdaysaid farmers would continue to enjoy tariff protection– much to the chagrin of Australian and particularly Irish farmers – but other government ministers are still reportedlypushing for as many tariffs as possible to be cut to zero, to help consumers weather the inflationary effects of a no-deal Brexit.
The trio of Tory defectors – Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston – are among the Conservatives’ most well-known and outspoken ‘Remain’ voices, and like their new ex-Labour crossbench colleagues they want a second referendum that they hope might overturn the outcome of the first.
“We no longer feel we can remain in the party of a government whose policies and priorities are so firmly in the grip of the ERG and DUP,” they said in a statement.
The European Research Group is a trenchant pro-Brexit group of at least 40 Conservative MPs, while the 10 MPs of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party have a loose coalition with Mrs May’s minority government that gives her a wafer-thin majority. Following the three defections, that majority in the 650-seat Commons has narrowed to eight.
Both the ERG and DUP have vigorously opposed Mrs May’s deal, on the grounds that the so-called ‘Northern Irish backstop’ – designed to ensure no border infrastructure is built on the politically sensitive Irish border with Northern Ireland – could leave Britain locked into an indefinite customs union with the EU.
Mrs May is trying to get European leaders to make a binding legal commitment that this won’t happen. On Wednesday she acknowledged that Britain’s membership of the EU “has been a source of disagreement both in our party and in our country for a long time”.
Labour split disputed
The Independent Group also added another Labour defector, Joan Ryan, who was motivated by worries about anti-Semitism in the opposition Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn.
There are now 11 in the group, and some insiders expect to see dozens more join in coming months. They will be buoyed by fresh opinion polls showing a respectable initial level of support – 10 per cent, according to Sky Data, though this isnowhere near enough to prosper in a first-past-the-post voting system.
Much of that support will betaken from Labour, which in an election means seats could fall to Conservative MPs who would otherwise be in second place. This has increased speculation that Mrs May might be tempted to try and force an early poll.
But leading rebel MP Chris Leslie said the idea that the Independents were taking votes from Labour was wrong. “Those who say ‘you’re splitting the Labour vote’ are making an awfully big assumption about who it belongs to,” he told the New Statesman.
University of Kent political scientist Matthew Goodwin said the group might, like pro-Brexit party UKIP, win plenty of votes but no seats.
“It’s a lot easier to generate mass excitement than it is to generate new seats in Westminster,” he said.