Tory rebel MEPs stripped of party whip over trade talks block bid
Two rebel Tory MEPs who voted to block moves towards trade talks between the UK and European Union have been stripped of the party whip.
South West MEP Julie Girling and South East MEP Richard Ashworth were suspended from the Conservative Party after supporting a resolution in Strasbourg declaring that "sufficient progress" had not been made in the Brexit talks to move on to discussions on the future relationship between the UK and EU.
The decision to remove the whip was backed by Downing Street in a sign that Theresa May is preparing to get tough with her party over Brexit as the talks move into a crucial phase.
The Prime Minister's attempt to assert her authority comes after a mishap-strewn conference speech and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson setting out his own "red lines" for the Brexit talks.
The whip was removed from the two senior MEPs following consultation between European Parliament Chief Whip Dan Dalton and Downing Street.
Former group leader Mr Ashworth and ex-chief whip Ms Girling backed the non-binding motion, which was passed by 557 votes to 92, with 29 abstentions.
In his letter to the pair, Mr Dalton said: "The Brexit negotiations are the most important negotiations our country faces and reaching a new partnership with the European Union is in the interests of both the UK and the EU.
"The resolution by the European Parliament sought to delay progress in the negotiations between the UK and the EU by holding back talks on the future relationship. It also proposed that one part of the UK, Northern Ireland, could remain in the single market and customs union, while the rest of the UK departs - which is not acceptable.
"Given the seriousness of this issue, and your failure to discuss your intention to vote against the agreed position of the Conservative delegation in advance, I am therefore writing to inform you that I am suspending the Conservative whip from you until further notice."
A Government source said the move had been backed by Downing Street because the rebel MEPs had behaved "totally irresponsibly".
The source said: "Regardless of how you voted in the referendum, it is surely in everyone's interests – both in Britain and in Europe – that talks can progress on trade and our future relationship."
Brexit Secretary David Davis has written to Labour's Jeremy Corbyn, calling on him to remove the whip from the 18 Labour MEPs who backed the motion on Tuesday.
He said: "While I would not expect opposition political parties to agree with us all the time about the end state we seek, it is a self-evident part of the national interest to support a discussion about our future relationship with Europe."
Mrs May's drive to instil discipline in her party came as EU officials reportedly stepped up contacts with Labour in preparation for a future change in UK government.
Doubts over Mrs May's premiership has seen Brussels "significantly" increase the amount of talks held with Mr Corbyn's party since the election, according to The Daily Telegraph.
Meanwhile, Mrs May's hopes of moving on to talks covering a transitional deal were dealt a blow as the Financial Times reported resistance from Germany and France.
Leaders are set to decide at October's meeting of the European Council whether enough progress has been made on issues including the financial settlement - the so-called divorce bill that London will pay to Brussels - to move on to the future relationship.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has declared it will take a "miracle" for that threshold to have been cleared by the October 20 meeting.
The UK and EU negotiators will meet for a fresh round of talks on Monday, while in Downing Street Mrs May will host business leaders to hear their views on the process.
Mrs May used her Tory conference speech to insist the Government was preparing for the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal with Brussels.
The Sunday Telegraph reported that those preparations included earmarking billions of pounds which will be "unlocked" in the new year if progress has not been made in the talks.
The money would be spent on measures including new technology to speed up customs checks if the UK has to fall back on to World Trade Organisation terms for dealing with the EU.