Ministers on both sides of debate make it clear that they are unlikely to be swayed
Theresa May has held private meetings for dozens of Conservative backbench MPs in an effort to get them onside with her customs union plans ahead of another crunch meeting of her Brexit inner cabinet on Tuesday.
The prime minister summoned nearly all of her parliamentary party to briefings to try to explain the two options for customs arrangements with the European Union amid fears the issue would continue to divide the party.
Several MPs who attended the meetings insisted that May and her senior aides made no obvious attempt to “bounce” them into supporting the customs partnership model, still thought to be her preferred option.
One senior Whitehall source suggested that Downing Street had instead been trying to “warm them up, give them a bit of a belly-tickling” before any crunch votes in parliament on Britain’s post-Brexit customs plans.
No 10 insiders revealed they did not expect any breakthrough when key cabinet ministers meet again on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the two rival plans, with one insisting it would be an “ongoing discussion”.
May faces a significant split within her Brexit inner cabinet over whether to push ahead with a customs partnership, in which the UK would collect tariffs on behalf of the EU, or opt for the “max-fac” model, which would seek to use technology instead.
In an attempt to overcome the problems that No 10 acknowledges exist with both options, she has divided the inner cabinet into two groups, with Brexit secretary David Davis and cabinet office minister David Lidington leading talks.
But ministers on both sides made it clear they are unlikely to change their minds, leading many in the Tory party to believe that a Brexit “implosion” is all but inevitable. Only defence secretary Gavin Williamson is thought to be persuadable.
May’s charm offensive involved inviting Tory MPs to one of five separate sessions at the Brexit department where, after introductory remarks, they were able to question the prime minister on her plans.
Gavin Barwell, May’s chief of staff, then gave what Downing Street sources insisted was a “neutral, technical” presentation, with MPs given the chance to press him further on the detail afterwards.
One No 10 source, who denied that May was trying to push one model over another at the briefings, said: “It’s an opportunity for MPs to see what we’re doing. Believe it or not, we try to keep the parliamentary party informed.”
Grant Shapps, the former Tory party chairman, said: “It is an impressive attempt to engage with colleagues across the Brexit landscape and went into a significant degree of detail which was appreciated by colleagues present.”
But a Brexiter source told the Guardian: “They’re neutral to the point of being incoherent. Yes, they’re presenting the facts such as they know them, but they’re not presenting any solutions. We’re all wondering why now, and to what ends?”
One MP suggested May was trying to get a sense of how febrile her parliamentary party was feeling over the proposals, but another added: “These weren’t focus groups. They’re what they say on the tin, but the tin is a lacklustre shade of grey.”
Brexiters were frustrated that the customs partnership, described by Boris Johnson as “crazy”, was still on the table. One said: “Isn’t it time for her to give it a Dignitas death rather than this horror show that is just going on and on.”
Remain MPs were also growing impatient, with one suggesting it was time for May to “face down the Brexiters” and press on with the customs partnership model, which was more likely to get through parliament.
Another added: “We’ve got to the point where we just want her to make a decision. We don’t care what she calls it, just get it done.”
MPs were told that neither model would work in its current form and that more work was needed, reinforcing concerns that the government could start to run out of time with the next major Brussels summit coming up next month.
Simon Coveney, the Irish deputy prime minister, has suggested, however, that the Irish border deal does not have to be entirely completed by the June deadline, but insisted a “difficult summer” is still on the horizon.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt earlier told Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, to keep his disagreements over Brexit private, and warned that open expressions of dissent could result in a worse deal for the UK.
Hunt told the BBC: “It’s important that we have these debates in private, not just because of collective responsibility – which is what democracy depends on – but also because this is a negotiation. And so, on the EU side, if they see divisions in the open, then they will exploit that.”
Nicky Morgan, a leading Tory remainer, revealed that she will give evidence in a court case in June after she received an alleged death threat over her position on Brexit.
She said her absolute determination not to “give in to the siren voices” was one of the reasons she joined forces with David Miliband and Sir Nick Clegg in a cross-party campaign aiming to persuade MPs to support Lords amendments to the EU withdrawal bill.
The trio claimed that Britain was being “held to ransom” by Brexiters, and indicated they would be campaigning heavily to win votes on keeping the UK in the customs union and single market.
Miliband denied that he was planning a return to British politics, while Clegg rejected claims the campaign was the genesis of a new centrist party.