Tory tensions over Brexit have boiled over in spectacular fashion after former Chancellor Nigel Lawson told Theresa May to get off her “knees” and stop “begging” Brussels for a good deal.
The Conservative peer declared that Margaret Thatcher would have been appalled that the UK was “in a humiliating state of cringe” towards the EU.
Just hours after May boasted in the Commons of her breakthrough in Brussels negotiations, Lord Lawson said she had “lost her nerve” in agreeing to pay £39bn in return for a future trade deal with the 27-nation bloc.
His withering remarks came as:
In the Commons, most leading Brexiteer MPs appeared to be reassured by May that she had not committed the Government to a ‘soft Brexit’.
Senior figures such as Iain Duncan Smith and John Redwood appeared relaxed despite the PM signing a provisional deal that could see the UK achieve “full alignment” with EU rules even after 2019.
But Lord Lawson, delivering the fourth annual Margaret Thatcher Lecture in London’s Carlton Club, was scathing about the Government’s stance.
“We find ourselves today quite unnecessarily as a supplicant, in a humiliating state of cringe, begging for what is both unnecessary and unattainable – a posture which would have been anathema to Margaret Thatcher,” he said.
“The time has come to call an end to this demeaning process. We must get up off our knees. Enough is enough.”
Lawson, who was Thatcher’s Chancellor and wants a ‘no deal Brexit’ to allow the UK maximum freedom to trade on World Trade Organisation rules, said that the late Prime Minister would have been “delighted” by the Brexit referendum result last year.
Yet he added that under Theresa May “we have now allowed ourselves to become bogged down in the fruitless quest for a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU, wasting precious time and making concession after concession to try and achieve one”.
“It is fruitless essentially because the EU is determined that we should not get anything that can be presented as a good deal, as that might, either now or in the future, encourage other members to follow suit.
“The provisional agreement that Mrs May secured last Friday is just about acceptable so far as it goes. But let us be quite clear. The UK’s regulatory autonomy, post-Brexit, must be unfettered. It is an essential attribute of national sovereignty, which is what Brexit is all about.”
Lawson praised May’s Lancaster House speech earlier this year when she said ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’.
“Yet she appears to have lost her nerve, and – no doubt encouraged by the bureaucracy, who are horrified by the idea of Brexit – has allowed herself to be manoeuvred into imagining that no trade deal would be a disaster. This is manifest nonsense. It is also the cause of most of her current difficulties.”
For good measure, Lawson added a jibe about May’s plans to intervene in energy markets and business to correct ‘market failure’.
“Margaret Thatcher would have been appalled by the explicit rejection of Thatcherite economics to which the present Government appears committed,” he said.
And backbencher Philip Davies, who was highly critical of May at a private meeting last week of the ’92 Group’ of fellow Thatcherite MPs, ridiculed the PM to her face in the Commons
“The Prime Minister said that there has been give and take in these negotiations. Of course she is absolutely right: we are giving the EU tens of billions of pounds, and the EU is taking them.
“She said that the money will not be paid unless there is a final agreement. By definition, that must mean that we are not legally obliged to make these payments because otherwise that option would not be available to us.
“Will she explain why she is paying tens of billions of pounds that are not legally due to the European Union when she is continuing a policy of austerity at home? Many of my constituents simply do not understand where all this extra money is coming from.”
Earlier, May admitted for the first time that the Brexit ‘divorce bill’ would amount to £39bn in payments to the EU, but tried to calm her MPs by stressing that it was dependent on a future trade deal.
“If we don’t agree that partnership, then this offer is off the table,” she said during a 105-minute session.
For his part, Corbyn said the Government’s current date of March 29, 2019 was “unnecessary” because a fixed deadline restricted the UK’s freedom to negotiate.
Corbyn’s words, his strongest on the subject yet, follow his party’s increasing backing for a ‘soft Brexit’ that would keep much EU migration and close ties to the single market.
May delighted her Brexiteer ministers and MPs last month by committing to writing the exact ‘Exit Day’ into the EU (Withdrawal) Bill currently going through Parliament.
Britain is on course to leave the EU two years after the PM triggered the formal Article 50 process in March this year.
But speaking in the Commons during the Prime Minister’s statement on her ‘progress report’ on Brexit talks, Corbyn said her tight deadline gave Brussels all the power in the talks.
He urged May to “consider dropping the unnecessary exit date deadline of the 29 March, 2019 from the EU Withdrawal Bill”
“Because I’m sure, the whole House and probably the whole country would rather get the best possible deal a little bit later if that meant a better deal for people’s jobs and the economy.”
May hit back that Corbyn was now making clear that Labour could not be relied on to deliver Brexit in 2019.
“He started off by saying that he wanted to uphold the referendum and then later in his comments he said he didn’t want to accept the leave date of 29 March, 2019,” she said.
“We’re leaving the European Union on that date, that is what the British people voted for and that is what this government is going to out in place.”
Tory backbencher Peter Bone said: “We now know from the leader of the Opposition that Labour wants to stay in indefinitely.”
Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer signalled this weekend that he wanted “easy” migration with the EU even after the UK quits the 28-nation union.
And Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told a press conference on Monday that Labour wanted to be part of ‘a reformed single market’, rather than remain a full member of the EU tariff-free trade system.
“Remaining in the single market would not respect the referendum result. But we’ve been using the phraseology ‘a single market’, not ‘the single market’ and ‘a customs union’ and not ‘the customs union’.