BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND — As Conservative MPs met at their party conference to discuss how to stop the prime minister’s Brexit plans, a government whip sent by Downing Street sat furiously taking notes.
Andrea Jenkyns, the Brexit-supporting MP, acknowledged his presence uneasily. Owen Paterson, a former secretary of state, turned towards the whip and addressed him directly.
„Just in case the whip who is here has to go,” he said, „I will vote against Chequers.” The crowd greeted Paterson’s words with raucous applause. They reacted with even louder applause when he said the Chequers plan — Theresa May’s proposed blueprint for leaving the EU — was „crawling around like some ghastly cockroach.”
The meeting — a fringe event at the Conservative Party’s annual conference billed under the „Brexit means Brexit” banner — underlined the scale of the challenge Theresa May faces in securing a Brexit deal. She has stuck rigidly to the so-called Chequers agreement since her Cabinet agreed to support the plan earlier this year. But Chequers is hugely unpopular with party members and most Leave-supporting MPs, who say it will keep it would keep the UK too closely tied to the EU and prevent an independent trade policy.
The tone of the meeting ranged from the bizarre to the comic. The panel of MPs, who sat before a framed photo of Margaret Thatcher, generated a chorus of boos every time they mentioned the name of Olly Robbins, the civil servant advising Theresa May on Brexit, who they believe is plotting to undermine their desire for a hard Brexit.
Andrea Jenkyns and Owen Paterson joined a round of applause when a speaker suggested Theresa May should already have resigned. Patel at one point began listing European treaties, inviting the audience to boo each of them. When Andrea Jenkyns said Remain supporters were „talking the country down,” an audience member stood up and shouted: „Traitors!”
But the meeting underlined a serious point. Theresa May says Chequers is a compromise which could get through parliament. But it is difficult to see the hard Eurosceptic wing of the party represented at this meeting ever supporting it. They oppose it on principle and know that many party members loathe it too.
Paterson told Business Insider afterwards that he estimates 80 Conservative MPs would oppose any deal which resembles Chequers. But it would only take a few MPs to oppose it to kill the deal in parliament because Labour has pledged to oppose it as well.
If May’s deal fails to get through parliament, what happens next is unclear. A general election is possible. A second referendum cannot be ruled out. What is clear is that the UK is leaving the EU in March next year and that is why the prospect of a no-deal Brexit is becoming increasingly likely.