The desire of Tory leadership candidates to appeal to the party’s Brexiteer grassroots could “wreck” any chance of the UK securing a trade deal with the EU, the former British ambassador to Brussels has warned.
Sir Ivan Rogers said he feared Theresa May’s possible successors would end up promising to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement and getting rid of the Northern Ireland backstop - something the EU has repeatedly ruled out accepting.
In an interview with BBC Newsnight, Rogers also warned the remaining EU 27 members could get so frustrated with the UK they might “pull the plug” on the talks and trigger a no-deal exit.
May has promised to step down as prime minister once an exit deal is agreed and will hand negotiating the future trade deal to her successor.
The fight to take over as leader is already well underway and it is expected to be a crowded field when the contest formally begins.
Names in the frame include Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab, Sajid Javid, Matt Hancock and Penny Mordaunt.
Amber Rudd, the pro-Remain work and pensions secretary, yesterday said it was “entirely possible” she could stand to be leader in order to try and stop a no-deal Brexit.
But Rogers said British politicians kept making a mistake in assuming it was in their gift to stop the UK leaving the EU without a deal.
He said Brussels could end up seeing Brexit as a “massive diversion” from its other priorities. “Its the other side that can truncate this process and decide no-deal is the right solution,” he said.
“The rather strange thing about the UK debate is the sense that we are the arbiters of whether no-deal will ever happen,” he said.
“Well it can happen. Because the other side can decide to pull the plug on these talks and say ‘we’ve given you a couple of extensions, you haven’t used the time, nothing has really happened, we are aborting this process’.”
Speaking about the Tory leadership contest, he added: “In the process of appealing to the party base which is after all more fervently eurosceptic than many of the parliamentarians and may well want a more true believer Brexiteer as their leader, will various candidates give pledges about what they would do in phase two, that would essentially wreck any prospect of phase two succeeding.”