The Cabinet Office minister, David Lidington, has urged the Conservatives to “come together in a spirit of mutual respect” as senior Tories continue to air their differences over Brexit.
Speaking after a series of open spats, Lidington, who works closely with the prime minister in Downing Street, told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that all sides of the “broad church” should unite to confront Labour.
“I think what I’d say to all my colleagues is that the Conservative family – left, right and centre, because we’re a broad church – has to come together in a spirit of mutual respect,” he said.
“There are differences in any broad church, but look at what the bigger picture is showing. The bigger picture is showing that after eight years in government, we’re neck and neck with the Labour party in the polls.”
The latest confrontation over Brexit saw the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers warn Britain was in danger of remaining in the EU “in all but name”.
Villiers, one of six cabinet ministers from David Cameron’s team who campaigned for leave in the 2016 EU referendum, used a Sunday Telegraph article to warn against a “dilution of Brexit”.
It comes after Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chair of the influential European Research Group of pro-Brexit MPs, accused the government of being “cowed” by Brussels last week.
Leavers are concerned about the nature of the implementation period after March 2019, which is expected to involve the UK accepting the jurisdiction of European court of justice, and they have been alarmed by reports that officials are seeking to extend the period beyond two years.
The chancellor, Philip Hammond, enraged pro-Brexit ministers and backbenchers last week by saying in a speech in Davos that Britain’s trading relationship with the EU would change only “very modestly” after Brexit. A backlash in Westminster later forced Downing Street to distance the prime minister from the remarks.
Villiers said she supports “compromise and moderation” in the UK’s approach to the negotiations, but added: “I understand why some are becoming nervous about the current situation.
“Since the prime minister set out a bold vision in her Lancaster House speech, the direction of travel seems to have gone in only one single direction: towards a dilution of Brexit.
“If the government goes too much further down that path, there is a real danger that it will sign up to an agreement which could keep us in the EU in all but name, and which would therefore fail to respect the referendum result.”
She urged May to resist the “immense pressure” to “water down” the approach set out last January, when the prime minister said Britain would be outside the single market and customs union.
May has so far largely managed to keep a lid on the divisions within her party over Brexit, but ministers privately admit there are deep differences at cabinet level about how much the UK should hope to diverge from the EU in future.
The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, plans to deliver a speech on what he calls the liberal case for Brexit in the next few weeks, which could cause fresh discord if it appears to differ from the prime minister’s approach.
Johnson was rebuked by May and several cabinet ministers last week after allies briefed a series of newspapers that he planned to confront the prime minister to demand a funding increase for the NHS.
Jeremy Corbyn, also appearing on Marr on Sunday, denied that Labour’s position on Brexit was muddled. “What we wanted to do was say we’ll protect jobs and supply chains on both sides of the Channel,” he said.
“There has to be the closest possible trading relationship with Europe, there has to be a tariff-free access to European markets. That’s where we’re going to with the objective.”
Asked whether Labour would be willing to accept aligning its regulations with the EU to win such tariff-free access, he said: “We would have a regulatory environment that is commensurate with European levels of regulation – obviously, because half our trade is with Europe.
“The point has to be about the regulatory environment and above all, the ability to influence those regulations that come.”
But he insisted Labour would not want to remain within the existing customs union with the EU. “We would want a form of customs union, obviously; whether it would be the customs union, answer: no, because it would require being a member of the EU, which we’re not.
“We would need to be sure that any relationship with the EU gives us the chance to influence the situation we’re in and any trading relationships we want.”
A vocal group of Labour backbenchers is urging Corbyn and his team to advocate remaining inside the existing customs union.
The Labour leader also confirmed that his party did not plan to throw its weight behind Liberal Democrat calls for a second referendum. “We’re not asking for a second referendum,” he said. Asked “and you’re not going to?”, he replied: “No.”