Theresa May has been hit by more resignations over her Brexit policy, as two Conservative vice-chairs quit over their opposition to her plans for Britain’s future relations with the EU.
Ben Bradley and Maria Caulfield warned that Mrs May’s plans for close links with Europe after Brexit risked handing Jeremy Corbyn the keys to 10 Downing Street.
Their resignations came after the Prime Minister chaired the first meeting of her new Cabinet following the departure of Boris Johnson and David Davis.
They were announced less than an hour before Mrs May was due to face the press alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel at an international summit in London.
“This policy will be bad for our country and bad for the party,” said the Lewes MP. “The direct consequences of that will be Prime Minister Corbyn.”
Mr Bradley said that the Brexit plan agreed by the Cabinet last week at Chequers would damage the UK’s opportunities to develop global trade and be “an outward-looking nation in control of our own destiny” following Brexit.
“Being tied to EU regulations and the EU tying our hands when seeking to make new trade agreements will be the worst of all worlds,” wrote the Mansfield MP, who voted remain in a constituency where more than 70% of voters opted to leave.
“If we do not deliver Brexit in spirit as well as in name, then we are handing Jeremy Corbyn the keys to Number 10.”
“I wish them both well as they return to the backbenches to serve their constituents.”
Labour MP Owen Smith, a supporter of the Best for Britain campaign for a second EU referendum, said: “David Davis and the other resigning Tories are just the first of the rats to quit the sinking Brexit ship. They lied to the country about the benefits of Brexit and they are now running away from any responsibility for the harm it is set to do our economy.
“We need a vote for the people on the final Brexit deal and an opportunity for us all to flee this disaster.”
And a Labour source said: “With just weeks to go to negotiate Brexit, NHS waiting lists growing and pay packets being squeezed, the Conservative Party continues to tear itself apart. Something has got to give.”
Earlier in the day, Mrs May was bolstered by the support of senior Brexiteers in her Cabinet.
Michael Gove left no doubt that he would not follow Boris Johnson and David Davis out of the Cabinet, declaring that he backed the Prime Minister’s plans “100%”.
And International Trade Secretary Liam Fox was seen to shake his head and mouth the word “No” when reporters asked him on his way out of Cabinet whether he was about to quit.
Jeremy Hunt, appointed the new Foreign Secretary as the Prime Minister carried out a hurried reshuffle of her top team, vowed that he would be “four square” behind her in driving through her Brexit plan.
Mr Gove told ITV News he was “absolutely not” planning to resign.
Asked whether Mrs May was in trouble following the rash of departures from her Government on Monday, the Environment Secretary replied: “No.”
The PM’s official spokesman later said that Cabinet gave its approval to pressing ahead with preparations for a possible “no deal” Brexit as agreed at Chequers last Friday.
New Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab chaired a meeting with business leaders to discuss the Chequers plan, which would see the UK agree to follow a “common rulebook” on trade with the EU in goods but accept restricted access for services.
Mrs Merkel declined to be drawn on Mrs May’s Brexit proposals, saying that the remaining 27 EU countries will determine a common response after they are set out in a White Paper on Thursday.
Speaking alongside Mrs May, the German Chancellor said: “I can only say that even after Britain has left the EU, we want to have as close a relationship with Britain as possible – which I think is true also for the other European member states.
“What we want to do now is bring the negotiating process forward… We as the 27 under the leadership of Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier, will then form an opinion and later on table a common response to those proposals. It’s a good thing that we have proposals on the table.
“We are looking forward to interesting discussions, but we will also have those discussions inspired by the spirit of friendship and inspired by the wish to continue a good relationship in the future.”
It remained unclear whether Tory Brexiteers can muster the 48 signatures they need to trigger a no confidence vote in Mrs May.
Former leader Lord Howard said a bid to oust the PM would be “extremely foolish and extremely ill-advised”.