Theresa May opens door to dumping Chequers plan for a soft Brexit – as Tories defend her from Boris Johnson onslaught

As the Tory conference started in Birmingham yesterday, the PM gave angry delegates hope by hinting there was “flexibility”.

Meanwhile, Tories on all sides of the Brexit debate rallied round her after Boris Johnson launched his most personal attack yet.

Marking the start of the Tories’ choppy annual conference in Birmingham, the under fire party leader told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show that a free trade deal is “at the heart of Chequers”.

She also refused to rule out further fudges with the EU despite being asked to five separate times.

And behind closed doors, Mrs May gave angry Tory delegates hope by saying there will be “flexibility” with Chequers in the last few weeks of negotiations.

During a National Convention meeting with regional party bosses, The Sun has learned that the PM also conceded for the first time that her full plan to keep to the EU’s rules on goods and collect its customs tariffs has been knocked back by EU bosses.

But “aspects of it will still work”, Mrs May told them.

The key concessions came as senior Tories on all sides of the Brexit divide lashed out at Boris after the former Foreign Secretary issued his most personal attack on the PM yet.

The mop haired senior Tory branded her Chequers plan for a softer Brexit “deranged”, and questioned whether she really believes in exiting the EU at all.

That left Mrs May being forced to insist: "I do believe in Brexit."

But a long list of senior party figures seized on Boris’s latest diatribe in a Sunday newspaper to accuse him of attention seeking,

Former Brexit Secretary and fellow Leave campaigner David Davis attacked Boris for coming up with “good headlines not good policies”.

Scots Tory leader Ruth Davidson accused Boris of hypocrisy, branding it “strange” he is attacking Mrs May’s Northern Ireland backstop pledge having previously heaped praise on her for it when he was in the Cabinet.

And in the more caustic comments of all, and TV celebrity Lord Digby Jones leaped on Boris for saying 'f*** business’.

The former business minister told the party faithful from the conference patfrom: "It showed him up to be the irrelevant and offensive person he really is".

The Sun can also reveal a group of Tory MPs who have formed an ‘Anyone But Boris’ campaign to frustrate any leadership bid intend to boo Mr Johnson at a conference rally he will headline on Tuesday.

One Tory minister said: “Several colleagues have said they are going to give Boris a taste of their own medicine and turn up to boo him.

“He won’t be very happy at the idea that some of us are getting very fed up with his antics.”

The backlash came as three different polls also yesterday revealed Mrs May is still liked by more voters than Boris.

If the election was a two way race, a BMG Research poll for HuffPost UK found 29% backed Jeremy Corbyn versus 25% who supported Boris.

But in answer to the same question comparing Mrs May and Mr Corbyn, the PM came out on top by 27% to 25%.

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned Brussels would stir Britain’s “Dunkirk spirit” if it forced a bad deal on Mrs May.

He told The Telegraph: “If President Macron thinks we will come crawling back to the club in a few years’ time, it is a profound misreading of our character.”

In what was seen as the first of a series of pitches at the four day conference to succeed Mrs May, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt compared the EU to the Soviet Union yesterday for treating Britain as a prisoner it won’t allow to leave.

Remainer-turned-Brexiteer Mr Hunt told the hall: “What happened to the confidence and ideals of the European dream? The EU was set up to protect freedom.

“It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving.
‘The lesson from history is clear: if you turn the EU club into a prison, the desire to get out won’t diminish it will grand and we won’t be the only prisoner that will want to escape.”

Mr Hunt also issued a plea for warring Tory factions to come together and end their Brexit civil war.

He added: “We can only unite the country if we are united ourselves. In Parliament. In the Government. And in the Cabinet”.

Meanwhile hardline backbench Tory Brexiteers put on a concerted show of strength last night hinting they could oust the PM if she did not change her Chequers plan.

Boris’s close ally Conor Burns took direct aim, warning: "I say to the Prime Minister – we don't want to change you, we want you to change the policy of Chequers".

And he urged her to "please, please" adopt a Canada style trade deal instead, suggesting the "affection" he held for the PM was at breaking point.

And he was backed at the Brexit Central website rally by Jacob Rees Mogg, who said Chequers was “not only a dying duck in a thunderstorm, it’s the deadest dying duck in a thunderstorm.

And he blasted campaigners for a so-called People's Vote, comparing them to Chinese communist and Libyan tyrant Gaddafi.

He said: "Once you put people's in the title it is not true, it is about the elite, about those in charge and we should be very careful about that."

A former Defence Minister also accused the PM of behaving like scheming Italian prince Machivelli and risked sending betrayed Tory voters into a political wilderness.

Mark Francois – who served as Conservative frontbencher for 10 years – told The Sun the Chequers plan looks like “some Machiavellian process or series of backstairs deals” that has “sought to overturn their clearly expressed decision”.

And he said the political weather meant those Brexit-loving Tory voters would be left homeless and may never vote again.

A study yesterday revealed that Brexit is already costing the public purse £500m a week.

The Centre for European Reform’s analysis found the UK economy is already 2.5% smaller than it would have been had Remain won the referendum.

But in an attempt at a Brexit boost, ministers announced that the UK will host a nationwide Festival of Britain & Northern Ireland in 2022.

Conference highlights

Gag of the day

FORMER Labour Minister Digby Jones warned pro-business Tories must unite as “Jeremy Corbyn is to wealth creation what Diane Abbott is to mathematics”.

Hero of the day

SCOTS Tory MP Ross Thomson savaged the one word conference slogan “OPPORTUNITY”, raging: “I couldn’t help thinking of the other words ‘missed’, ‘lost’, ‘wasted’ and ‘squandered’.”

Villain of the day

TRANSPORT boss Chris Grayling’s own train to Birmingham was late — but he was spotted passing the time playing FarmVille on his phone rather than working.

Leadership bid of the day

FORMER Remainer Jeremy Hunt delighted the Leave-backing party faithful by comparing the EU to the Soviet Union and then channelling Maggie Thatcher by telling Brussels “no, no, no”.

Brown nose of the day

TORY Peter Bone said ex-Ukip boss Nigel Farage should be made a Lord and put in charge of Brexit, adding: “If he had been in charge, we would have been out by now.”

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