Theresa May will chair a cabinet meeting in the north-east of England as she starts a summer campaign intended to gain public support for her much-criticised Chequers Brexit plan.
The visit on Monday is intended primarily to show the government’s ongoing support for the “northern powerhouse” concept, and May will confirm that up to £780m is being set aside for a pre-planned east coast mainline upgrade and that the “North of Tyne” devolution deal is to go ahead.
But the prime minister is also intending to use the visit to defend the Brexit proposals that polls suggest are deeply unpopular with Conservative supporters and the public at large.
On Sunday, as some high-profile Conservatives suggested a second referendum might be the only way to resolve national divisions about how to handle Brexit, the former Brexit secretary David Davis used an interview to say that there would have to be a “reset” in the autumn when the government would have to abandon Chequers and start again.
With the Commons recess starting on Tuesday, May will not face any more parliamentary challenges until the autumn. But the government is supposed to reach a deal with Brussels on EU withdrawal by October, and the compromise plan agreed by the cabinet two weeks ago is finding little support in Brussels or in parliament.
The Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, on Sunday accused Brussels of being irresponsible for flagging up the risks to EU nationals living in Britain from a no-deal Brexit. He said a document published by Brussels last week that highlighted the risk of the UK leaving the EU without an agreement was “obviously an attempt to try and ramp up the pressure”.
In an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Raab said the UK was preparing for all eventualities, and that more information about the planning would be made public later in the year in a series of “technical notices” the government would publish.
He did not deny a report saying that the contingency plans included a proposal to turn a 10-mile stretch of the M26 in Kent into a lorry park.
In the EU’s 17-page paper for member states urging them to intensify preparations for all eventualities published on Thursday, it highlighted what a no-deal Brexit would mean for citizens. “There would be no specific arrangement in place for EU citizens in the UK, or for UK citizens in the EU,” it said.
Asked specifically about the issue, Raab said: “Well, I think that’s a rather irresponsible thing to be coming from the other side. We ought to be trying to reassure citizens on the continent and also here.”
A YouGov poll published at the weekend suggests only 12% of people think the plan would be good for Britain, against 43% who think it would be bad.
And Conservative party members are particularly hostile. A ConservativeHome poll of party members published on Sunday suggests 67% are opposed to the government’s plan, up from 60% two weeks ago when it was unveiled in a No 10 statement after the Chequers cabinet meeting but before the white paper with the full details had been published.
Monday’s cabinet excursion to the north-east will be followed be series of meetings cabinet ministers are holding with their European counterparts over the summer, largely focused on promoting the UK’s Brexit proposals.
Jeremy Hunt, the new foreign secretary, will be in Berlin on Monday, and he said in advance that he would be telling the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, “that our European partners must show much more flexibility and creativity in negotiations if we are to avoid a ‘no deal by accident’ scenario”.
In an interview with the Sunday Express, Davis, who resigned earlier this month because he could not support the Chequers deal, said that he thought May would have to abandon the plan in the autumn and try something different.
“We’re going to have to do a reset and come back and look at it all again. What we mustn’t do is leave everything on the table and offer something else on top,” he said.
“One of the traditional tactics of the EU is to say: ‘OK, but not enough’ and pocket what they’ve already been given. We can’t allow that. We’ll have to say: ‘Sorry, if that deal’s not enough then it’s no longer available’.”
Davis said t at that point the government should draft its own plan for a free trade treaty with the EU, incorporating “the best bits” from existing EU free trade treaties. He said that he would not expect the government to welcome this “Canada plus, plus, plus” approach (so-called because it would be modelled on the EU-Canada free trade deal) now but that “come the autumn, we’ll be in a different position”.
He also said the government should accelerate planning for the UK having to leave the EU with no deal, trading on World Trade Organization terms. He accepted that this would generate problems, but said: “They’re likely to last months rather than years.”
In an interview on the Marr Show, the former Conservative prime minister John Major said that leaving the EU with no deal would be “a terrible betrayal of the interests of everyday people who really are not political”.
Showing limited enthusiasm for the Chequers plan – “it isn’t what I would have preferred to see, but it is a compromise” – Major also talked up the case for holding a second referendum as a solution to the government’s Brexit dilemma.
“Frankly, a second vote has democratic downsides. It has difficulties. But is it morally justified? I think it is,” he said.
In a separate interview, Dominic Grieve, one of the leading pro-EU Tory MPs, said he thought a second referendum “may be the only solution”.
Speaking at the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs festival in Dorset, Jeremy Corbyn said he thought Tories who favoured a no-deal Brexit were now dictating policy in the Conservative party, and that the country would suffer as a result.
“I just get the feeling that the tail is wagging the dog in the Conservative party and those that want no deal seem to be ruling the roost and they are pushing for that,” the Labour leader said.
“No deal would be a very, very bad situation and no deal would be a very bad deal because we then go on to World Trade Organization tariff rates that would hit the manufacturing industry and hit the food processing industry and hit an awful lot of things in Britain very rapidly. I believe there has to be serious stepping up of negotiations to reach an agreement on customs and on trade.”