The Daily Telegraph has prompted a backlash among senior Tories after it dubbed some Conservative MPs “Brexit mutineers” in a dramatic front page splash.
The paper reports at least 15 rebels - including father of the house Ken Clarke, former ministers Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry, ex-Attorney General Dominic Grieve and select committee chairs Tom Tugendhat and Sarah Wollaston - are preparing to vote against a government amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill which would see the UK’s Brexit date enshrined in law.
The move casts fresh doubt on the government’s ability to emerge from bill’s Committee stage unscathed.
Ardent Remain campaigner Soubry branded the article - raised by Labour’s Wes Streeting during a debate on the bill on Tuesday evening - “a blatant piece of bullying” as the article was raised in the House of Commons while MPs were debating.
But the Broxtowe MP said she was not personally bothered and regarded being named as a mutineer as “a badge of honour”.
“We want a good Brexit, not a hard, ideologically driven Brexit,” she tweeted shortly afterwards, claiming some of her colleagues were “outraged” at having been left off the list.
Former education minister Morgan added: “I thought we wanted a culture of respect.”
Another ‘mutineer’, MP Heidi Allen, urged the newspaper to ‘bring it on’.
And Totnes MP Sarah Wollaston tweeted that ‘raising questions’ about a fixed date for Brexit was simply part of her job.
Even current Brexit minister Steve Baker, a long-standing campaigner for Leave who had been making the Government’s case in the House of Commons, dismissed the Telegraph story as “media attempts to divide” the Conservative Party.
Theresa May sought to distance herself from it during Prime Ministers’ Questions on Wednesday.
She told the Commons: “There is of course a lively debate going on in this place...and there are strong views held on different sides of the argument, on both sides of this House.
“What we are doing is listening to the contributions being made, we are listening carefully to those who wish to improve the bill and I hope we can all come together.”
And another Conservative minister, Alistair Burt, added the Telegraph appeared “small”.
Brexit secretary David Davis announced the amendment, aimed at setting in stone the UK’s March 29, 2019 exit date from the EU, last week.
He claimed it showed the government had “listened to members of the public and Parliament” who were concerned at its ambiguity.
He added: ”[We have] made this change to remove any confusion or concern about what ‘exit day’ means.
“This important step demonstrates our pragmatic approach to this vital piece of legislation. Where MPs can improve the bill, whatever their party, we will work with them.”
But during Tuesday’s debate on the Bill, Tory stalwart and former chancellor Ken Clarke dismissed the amendment as “silly”, which won him applause from the Labour benches.
The government amendment will not be voted on until Day 7 of the scheduled debates. It has prompted fears that MPs named in the article - and their staff - will have to up their security in the meantime to guard against a potential backlash from angry Brexit supporters.
One senior Tory source told HuffPost UK: “It’s appalling. And people wonder why MPs need protection and security.”