Theresa May is facing a showdown with her own MPs over her Brexit deal, with 75% of Tories wanting freedom of movement to end immediately after the UK leaves the EU.
In her landmark speech in Florence in September last year, the Prime Minister confirmed she would seek an “implementation period” with the EU after Brexit day – March 29 2019 – which would see the UK continue to trade with the bloc on “current terms”.
If that agreement was carried through, freedom of movement would continue during the implementation period, as would jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
A survey of MPs carried out in the months after the speech revealed that three-quarters of Tories think it would be unacceptable for freedom of movement to continue during a transition period, while 63% oppose the ECJ having jurisdiction in the UK after March 2019.
With May only staying in power thanks to a deal with the DUP, backbench influence over Government thinking has arguably never been stronger.
One leading Tory who has already spoken out against freedom of movement continuing as it is is Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Just days after May’s Florence speech, he told a radio station in the Czech Republic: “The relevant date for cutting the current model of free movement of persons and EU immigration into Britain is still 2019. We must be clear about this.
“The approval of the transitional period did not extend this deadline – that is, if I was right to understand the prime minister’s proposal.
“In 2019, union citizens living in the UK must meet the conditions, so they can stay in the country automatically and get ‘landlord status’. Other people who arrive in the UK can still stay and try to get the same rights after five years.”
May is not the only leader to face a battle with her backbenchers when it comes to Brexit.
According to the survey, 90% of Labour MPs believe Single Market membership is compatible with Brexit, in contrast to what Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly claimed.
Labour MPs are more in tune with the party membership than the leadership on this issue, with a recent poll of members finding 87% believe Britain should stay in the Single Market.
Kings College London’s Professor Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe which co-commissioned the survey, said: “Brexit presents a stark challenge to the leaderships of both major political parties.
“Their views are at odds with those of their own MPs. This promises to cause significant problems for both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.
“The Prime Minister, in particular, might face considerable opposition from her own backbenchers when it comes to securing the kind of transitional deal she has indicated she wants.”
The survey also revealed the almost two-thirds of Conservative MPs (65%) agreed that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, whereas 77% of Labour MPs strongly disagreed.
Professors Tim Bale and Philip Cowley, from Queen Mary University of London, helped design and conduct the survey.
Professor Bale said: “The sheer number of Tory MPs seemingly prepared to countenance crashing out of the EU without a deal is one of the most striking findings to emerge from this research.
“Who knows, though, if push does come to shove, whether they really will refuse a compromise? If they do, then Theresa May could be in some serious parliamentary trouble later on this year.”
The research was conducted by Ipsos MORI in November and December 2017 on behalf of The UK in a Changing Europe together with the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London. Interviews were conducted with 105 MPs, face-to-face, and findings are weighted to reflect the composition of the House of Commons.