Theresa May’s Brexit talks with Labour have been criticised as a “blind alley” as she came under intense pressure from 14 senior party figures to abandon the idea of a cross-party pact.
The former defence secretary Michael Fallon said the talks should be stopped, after he joined 12 other former cabinet ministers and Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, in warning No 10 against any deal that involved a customs union.
Fallon, who was forced to resign by May in 2017 for inappropriate behaviour towards women, said it would be better to stay in the EU than sign up to a customs union – a key demand of Labour.
“This is a blind alley taking us into a customs union,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “We said we would leave a customs union very clearly at the time of the election. If you go into a customs union you can’t start pursuing independent trade deals.
“Far better to start concentrating on the other side which is the arrangements in Northern Ireland. The talks are clearly not getting anywhere. If they are going to include permanent membership of the customs union, then frankly we would be better off staying in the EU.”
May’s cabinet and Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet are both due to take stock of the talks on Tuesday, with neither side optimistic about the prospects for an agreement that could secure a majority in parliament.
Meanwhile, the prime minister’s Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins, was travelling to Brussels for talks with EU officials on whether the political declaration could be changed, in an effort to break the deadlock.
The BBC said Robbins would explore how quickly changes could be made to the declaration if the government and Labour could come to an agreement.
In a letter to the prime minister, former cabinet ministers including Gavin Williamson, who was sacked this month over the Huawei leak, the former Brexit secretaries David Davis and Dominic Raab, and the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, cautioned her against any deal involving Corbyn’s central demand of a customs union.
“We believe that a customs-union-based deal with Labour will very likely lose the support of Conservative MPs like us who backed the withdrawal agreement in March (in many cases very reluctantly), and you would be unlikely to gain as many Labour MPs to compensate,” said the letter, obtained by the Times.
“More fundamentally, you would have lost the loyal middle of the Conservative party, split our party and with likely nothing positive to show for it. No leader can bind his or her successor, so the deal would likely be at best temporary, at worst illusory.”
The fragility of May’s leadership, and the threat it presents to any deal being deliverable, has been discussed openly in the cross-party Brexit talks, which resumed on Monday.
Labour is demanding what it calls “entrenchment”, a legal underpinning for any promises made by the prime minister, to prevent a future leader unpicking them. In signing the letter, Johnson and Raab underlined Labour’s fears by making clear they would aim to sweep away any deal that involved a customs union.