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Fresh Brexit row as Tory MPs accuse Theresa May of breaking promise to shake up negotiating team

2 min read

Theresa May is facing fresh fury from her own backbenchers amid claims she is stalling on a promise to shake up her Brexit negotiating team.

Brexiteers in the European Research Group of Tory MPs have claimed that Number 10 pledged to draft in two top trade negotiators for talks with Brussels in exchange for helping the Prime Minister see off a bid to delay Britain's EU exit.

But Downing Street said there would be "no change" to the British negotiating team, which has long been led by her top official Olly Robbins.

"In terms of the civil service side, the team remains the same," Mrs May's spokesperson said.

"The civil service team, which is led by Olly Robbins, remains the same."

Brexiteers reacted with fury to the comments, with former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith branding the move "absurd".

Eurosceptics want the UK’s Permanent Representative to the World Trade Organisation Julian Braithwaite, and Crawford Falconer - Liam Fox's chief negotiator at the Department for International Trade - to be brought in to the top team.

Steve Baker, a key player in the ERG, said: "Excluding our chief trade negotiation adviser from our principal trade negotiation is a longstanding mistake which should be rectified now."

In the latest salvo on Wednesday night, the Tory MP called for a "new broom" in the Brexit talks amid reports that Mr Robbins had warned colleagues against the Prime Minister's plan to push the EU for fresh changes to the Northern Ireland backstop.

According to the Telegraph, Mr Robbins questioned whether the EU would be willing to offer significant legal changes to the backstop, which would keep Britain closely aligned to the bloc if no other way to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland can be found.

A source told the Telegraph: "The gist of the email was that it wasn't worth the paper it's written on."

Responding to the story, ERG chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg said it was "the job of officials to implement policy, not to obstruct".

He added: "The European Research Group [of Eurosceptic Tory MPs] understood that Crawford Falconer would be involved in future negotiations and it would be surprising if this did not happen."

But the focus on Mr Robbins drew fire from the boss of the union representing senior officials.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said: "The premise that somehow the fault lies with the messenger, rather than the message, shows how delusional some are in this debate.

"The constant search for a scapegoat, rather than a solution, is shameful."

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