UK Brexit chief says no deal better than being tied to bloc

Britain's chief Brexit minister warned the European Union — and his divided party — on Monday that the country will leave the bloc without a deal rather than accept continued close adherence to its rules and obligations.

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab planned to tell Conservative Party members in a speech that if the EU tries to "lock us in via the back door" by keeping Britain in the bloc's single market or customs union, "then we will be left with no choice but to leave without a deal," according to extracts released in advance.

That view is not universally shared among Conservatives as Britain's governing party holds its annual conference in the central England city of Birmingham.

Many Conservative lawmakers would rather keep close ties with the EU after Britain leaves in March. So would major business groups, who fear barriers to trade and recruiting workers could hammer the U.K. economy.

Treasury chief Philip Hammond will use his own conference speech Monday to stress that the Conservatives are the party of business and economic aspiration. It's a sign of how Brexit has upended British politics that the party of free-market former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher needs to make such an assurance.

Current Prime Minister Theresa May, meanwhile, faces the mounting threat of a challenge to her leadership amid deepening opposition to her Brexit plan and growing support for a second referendum on Britain's EU membership.

She is caught between ministers such as Hammond, who want to retain close economic bonds with the EU after departure, and advocates of "hard Brexit" who say a clean break with the bloc would let Britain strike new trade deals around the world.

May's blueprint for Brexit, which would keep Britain in the EU single market for goods while leaving it free to make its own rules on services, is unpopular with both factions of her party. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a likely future contender for May's job, has called it "preposterous" and "deranged."

The plan has also been rejected by EU leaders, who say it amounts to "cherry picking" benefits of membership in the bloc without the costs and responsibilities.

May is sticking to her proposal. But with Brexit day — March 29, 2019 — less than six months away, chances are rising that the U.K. could find itself crashing out of the bloc without a deal.