A Tory MP and arch critic of Boris Johnson has sparked a backlash from Brexiters after suggesting Britain rejoin the EU’s single market to help ease the cost of living crisis.
Tobias Ellwood’s comments were seized upon by allies of the prime minister as evidence that deposing Johnson would threaten the country’s more distant relationship with Brussels.
In a call for more radical thinking to “energise our economy through these stormy waters”, Ellwood said the government should “better maximise our Brexit fortunes”.
Drawing on his six years serving in the army, Ellwood wrote in an article for the House parliamentary magazine that “if an army general, mid-battle, is mature enough to finesse his strategy to secure mission success, then government should do the same”, adding that there was vast room for improvement in economic relations with the EU.
He argued that exports to Europe had shrunk by £20bn, with fishers and farmers facing particular hardship, and the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol remained unresolved. “All these challenges would disappear if we dare to advance our Brexit model by rejoining the EU single market (the Norway model),” he wrote.
His argument, however, was used by Johnson’s allies to suggest the attempt to force a confidence vote next week was evidence of an anti-Brexit bias.
David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator during the divorce talks, said Ellwood’s intervention “shows Brexit really is not safe in his hands or his allies’”.
A senior MP said Ellwood had “let the cat out of the bag”, adding: “After all the pain we went through on Brexit, he’s still hell bent on trying to drag us back into the EU, and he’s willing to sacrifice the prime minister who delivered Brexit to get there.”
Some of those seeking to oust Johnson hastily distanced themselves from Ellwood’s comments, fearful they would be seized on by No 10.
Mark Harper, a senior Conservative MP who has submitted a no confidence letter in Johnson, said he categorically disagreed with Ellwood and was clear that Brexit “meant leaving the single market and putting an end to freedom of movement – the end”.
He admitted there were issues with the protocol but said the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, and the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, were working to deal with those.
Another Tory MP who is thought to have submitted a no-confidence letter anonymously said Brexiters still outnumbered remainers in terms of those who have publicly called for a confidence vote.
Ellwood faced down anonymous criticism levelled at him by those still loyal to Johnson, who have criticised rebel Tories as self-indulgent narcissists.
“I think perhaps we should have a pause, maybe, and leave this until Tuesday when we all return, because I do worry about where it’s descending,” Ellwood told Times Radio on Thursday morning, as celebrations began to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee.
“The party itself must work together, whatever happens, wherever the party goes, and it’s important that we do remain civil. But you can’t get away from the fact that there are genuine concerns which aren’t just reflected in party members but also in the polling, in local elections, no doubt in the byelections as well. And those issues need to be addressed.
“It’s not just the culture of how No 10 was governed but also the direction of the party; where we go to meet the very huge challenges that lie ahead.”