17/07/2018 17:13 BST | Updated 18/07/2018 09:02 BST

Sir John Major Warns 'Fanatical' Tory Brexiteers Will Trigger An Early General Election

He also said the party could split over Brexit

Former Prime Minister Sir John Major believes “fanatical” Eurosceptic Tories will trigger an early General Election unless they start compromising with Theresa May.

The ex-Tory leader launched a scathing attack on the European Research Group of MPs – led by Jacob Rees-Mogg – as he warned Brexiteers are more dedicated and focused than the so-called ‘bastards’ he faced during his time in Downing Street.

The former PM – who led the country from 1990 to 1997 – even compared the ERG to the hardline Republican Tea Party group, an organisation famed for its tough approach to negotiations.

Speaking to ITV News’ Robert Peston on his digital programme ‘Now What?’, Sir John warned the Hard Brexiteers could even split the party if they don’t show flexibility in talks with Downing Street.

Sir John said: “Once we come to a ‘no deal’ it is difficult to see how a General Election can be avoided and difficult to see how an election for Prime Minister can be avoided, if we come to ‘no deal’.

“If those hard, most convinced Brexit supporters continue to say there is no compromise and whatever is put forward is going to be rejected then that is the route in which we are headed.” 

John Stillwell - PA Images via Getty Images
John Major, pictured with Michael Portillo, far right, - one of the so-called 'bastards' - in the 1990s.

Sir John fought a series of running battles with Tory eurosceptics in the 1990s, once dubbing them ‘the bastards’ as he struggled to get through key legislation which helped create the modern European Union.

But the Tory grandee warned May the current crop of eurosceptics - which include old foes such as Sir Bill Cash, Sir Bernard Jenkin and Iain Duncan Smith - are now more determined than they were 25 years ago. 

He said: “I think there are some people in the Conservative Party now who are more dedicated to their concerns about getting the UK out of Europe than they are dedicated to the implications of what that may be to their constituents and other people’s constituents, or the future of our country, or the interests of our country, or the interests of our party. There are more of them now than there were in the 1990s and that is why I see a difference.”

He added: “There’s a bit of a Tea Party grouping in the hardline European Research Group and that makes it very difficult to negotiate with them.”

Sir John said he worried about how the Tories reunited after Brexit, saying: “My concerns are about those who are a touch to fanatical about the issue and are really prepared to go to almost any lengths to ensure that we leave Europe, irrespective of the cost to the country, irrespective to the cost to individuals, irrespective of the cost to the Prime Minister, irrespective of the cost to the party, irrespective of anything but there own fanatical determination to make sure we actually leave Europe.

“I’m not sure how you bring those people back in the fold.”

May narrowly survived a Government defeat on Brexit on Monday evening as the Tory party’s bitter civil war over Europe exploded into life once more.

MPs voted by 305 to 302 to support an amendment to the Trade Bill that seeks to unpick a key plank of the Prime Minister’s plans for a ‘soft’ exit from the EU.

Tabled by former minister Priti Patel, the amendment ensures that HM Revenue and Customs would not collect EU countries’ tariffs under a customs partnership, without “a reciprocal arrangement” with Brussels.

In a sign of just how divisive the issue now is, Anna Soubry - who voted against the change was personally derided by fellow Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh as ‘no Margaret Thatcher’.

The Tory grandee, an arch Eurosceptic, had seized on Soubry’s praise of the former Prime Minister.

“I knew Margaret Thatcher, I worked for Margaret Thatcher. The hon lady ain’t no Margaret Thatcher,” he said.

Former minister Nicky Morgan slammed Leigh in return, saying: “Pathetic! Is that the best you can do?”

Soubry herself was withering about May’s decision to cave in to pressure, saying ministers “should be shaking their heads with shame”.

“This is the stuff of complete madness. And the only reason that the government has accepted these amendments is because it is frightened of somewhere in the region of 40 members of parliament - the hard, no deal Brexiteers, who should have been seen off a long time ago and should be seen off.”