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SIMON WALTERS: Keir Starmer may be key to slaying the Spartans

SIMON WALTERS: Keir Starmer may be key to slaying the Spartans in the ERG

The UK has been negotiating for a Brexit deal for four-and-a half years. Boris Johnson would have just days to get it approved by Parliament. Could he do it?

When it comes to winning over Eurosceptics, there’s no tougher crowd than the powerful pro-Brexit Conservative European Research Group and last night they were behaving true to form.

Rabble-rousing ERG chairman, Tory MP Mark Francois announced the group would set up its own review, a kind of ‘Star Chamber’, to judge the deal.

SIMON WALTERS: Allies of Mr Johnson told me yesterday that he has calculated all along that about 20 ERG ‘hardliners’ would vote against a deal

Thorn in the side: Hardline Mark Francois would vote against a deal 

If the verdict of the ERG ‘court’ – informally chaired by Brexit warhorse Sir Bill Cash, 80 – was that Mr Johnson had given away too much, then it would instruct its MPs to vote against it.

Allies of Mr Johnson told me yesterday that he has calculated all along that about 20 ERG ‘hardliners’ would vote against a deal – any deal.

Such is the ‘purity’ of their approach to Brexit it would be impossible to produce an agreement that would match their standards. These MPs include self-styled ‘Spartan’ Mr Francois.

SIMON WALTERS: If the verdict of the ERG ‘court’ – informally chaired by Brexit warhorse Sir Bill Cash, 80 – was that Mr Johnson had given away too much, then it would instruct its MPs to vote against it

Named after the fearless ancient Greek warriors, he and this hardcore group of Eurosceptic Tories will brook no compromise with Brussels.

Among the ERG ‘Spartans’ No 10 fears it will be unable to win over are former party leader Iain Duncan Smith and outspoken Conservative MPs Andrew Bridgen and Peter Bone. 

Iain Duncan Smith

All have been vocal in warning Mr Johnson to stick to his guns in the negotiations.

However, Downing Street believes many of the other 100 or so ERG members could be persuaded to swallow reservations about the deal and support Mr Johnson in the Commons voting lobby. 

‘They know the stakes are very high for Boris as well as the country,’ said an MP close to the Prime Minister.

‘No other leader could have done more to stand up to the EU. Boris has done a brilliant job – and is still held in high esteem by party members. 

They remember what a mess we were in before he replaced Theresa (May) and don’t want to go back to that.’

Unlike Mrs May, Mr Johnson won a thumping Commons majority of 80. He can afford to have nearly 40 of his own MPs rebel and still get a deal through.

But if more than 40 Conservative MPs join a ‘Spartan’ revolt he is in trouble. In that instance only one man can save him: Sir Keir Starmer. 


SIMON WALTERS: Among the ERG ‘Spartans’ No 10 fears it will be unable to win over are former party leader Iain Duncan Smith and outspoken Conservative MPs Andrew Bridgen (left) and Peter Bone (right)

If Labour formed an alliance with Tory Brexit rebels and voted against the deal, Johnson could lose.

But Starmer, desperate to put Labour’s Brexit split behind him, is highly unlikely to do that. He has said Labour will ‘vote in the national interest’ if a deal is made.

Translation: for all his huffing and puffing I would expect him to back Boris.

Which is why in my view, regardless of what messy compromises might emerge in the next few days that Mr Johnson may have made to avoid a No Deal outcome, he would get his way.

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