Brexiteers plot to install ‘dream team’ at No 10: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove — and Jacob Rees-Mogg as chancellor4 February 2018 | 02:58 | The Sunday Times
Eurosceptics contacted Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, on Friday and urged him to agree a pact that would see Michael Gove, the environment secretary, become his deputy prime minister and Jacob Rees-Mogg — the shop steward of the backbench Brexiteers — appointed chancellor if the prime minister is forced out.
While encouraging MPs to “rally round” May, Johnson also told one of the plotters that he would be “ready” for a future contest. He vowed that the “cavalry is coming” to block the customs union plan when May’s Brexit “war cabinet” meets to discuss Britain’s future relations with Brussels this week.
Another cabinet Brexiteer has told MPs that Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, will resign if a customs union is agreed.
In a fresh challenge to May:
● Eurosceptics threatened to submit a “tsunami” of letters demanding a vote of no confidence unless May backed down on the customs union, warning they could “take back control” of the government whenever they wanted
● Downing Street placed about 10 ministers on “suicide watch” amid fears of a walkout that could cause the government to collapse, with defence minister Tobias Ellwood at the top of the list
● Rees-Mogg, in a heated showdown last week with Julian Smith, the chief whip, demanded that May sack her civil service Brexit negotiator Oliver Robbins
● Smith told MPs that Philip Hammond was to blame for Brexit tensions, saying the chancellor has a political “tin ear”
● MPs called for a Brexit minister to be permanently stationed in Brussels to keep an eye on officials, with former cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith touted for the role.
The Brexit “war cabinet” will meet for two hours on both Wednesday and Thursday to agree Britain’s negotiating stance.
Under a plan drawn up by Robbins, the UK could keep trading goods tariff-free with the EU and negotiate separate trade deals on services with non-EU countries.
Brexiteers, however, want to be able to do free trade deals on goods with the rest of the world as well. Rees-Mogg said: “We do not wish to be in ‘a’ customs union, ‘the’ customs union or ‘an’ customs union.” He accused Treasury officials of “fiddling the figures” on Brexit.
Johnson and Gove will fight the plans for a customs union and Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, has told MPs that Brexiteer ministers will kill off the plan.
May’s team are considering an “away day” during the recess a week later to finalise the government’s position, daring ministers to sign up or “do a Heseltine” and resign on the spot, as Michael Heseltine did in 1986 when leaving Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet.
A leading Eurosceptic said: “The PM needs to understand that we can take back control. If she persists with this customs union plan, we can get rid of her and we have the numbers to ensure that one of us takes over.”
Under the “Three Brexiteers” plan, senior jobs would be found for Priti Patel, the former cabinet minister, and Dominic Raab, the housing minister overlooked for promotion by May in her January reshuffle.
The plotters fear that a failure to pre-agree a plan would lead to a “free for all” in which up to seven Brexiteers would fight it out to take on home secretary Amber Rudd, defence secretary Gavin Williamson and health secretary Jeremy Hunt, the other frontrunners.
Penny Mordaunt, the new international development secretary and Brexiteer, has told colleagues that she has had “leadership training”.
Johnson’s allies believe he would have to win support from non-Eurosceptics to secure the leadership and have encouraged him to make overtures to Rudd, with a view to making her Britain’s first female chancellor.
No 10 is on tenterhooks about a ministerial resignation and is watching Johnson and others with leadership ambitions such as Ellwood, Phillip Lee, Sam Gyimah, Raab and Rory Stewart — as well as Johnson’s brother Jo and his former leadership campaign chief Ben Wallace — all of whom have denied that they intend to resign.
Ellwood said he was “donning my suit of armour” to fight “the mother of all battles with the Treasury” for higher defence spending.
Fox did not respond to requests for comment.
A former minister said: “After the election, the matchbox was clearly on sale in the shop. Now someone has bought the matchbox and we are all waiting to see who will strike the match.”
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