Downing Street has denied that Theresa May is taking a no-deal Brexit off the table.
Eurosceptic Tories are threatening to rebel in a key Brexit vote on Thursday over a motion tabled in the Prime Minister’s name which they claim would commit her to avoiding EU withdrawal without a deal.
The motion asks the House to reiterate its support for the approach agreed on January 29, when the Commons backed an amendment authorising Mrs May to go back to Brussels to renegotiate the controversial Irish backstop.
But members of the backbench European Research Group say that it effectively endorses another amendment ruling out no-deal, which was approved by MPs the same day but is not binding on the Government.
One ERG member told the BrexitCentral website: “We told the Government very clearly last night that we will not support this motion and in fact we urged them, indeed pleaded with them at senior level, to withdraw it yesterday – but they took absolutely no notice. Frankly, we despair.”
Pressed on the issue at a Westminster media briefing, Mrs May’s official spokesman told reporters: “What the motion reflects is the position the Prime Minister set out after those votes, which is the Parliament wants the UK to leave with a deal, but in order to do so it requires us to secure legally-binding changes in relation to the backstop.”
He added: “No-deal is an eventuality we wish to avoid, but one we continue to plan for. Does no-deal remain on the table? The answer is yes.”
The spokesman declined to discuss reports that senior negotiator Olly Robbins was overheard in a Brussels bar saying that Mrs May planned to wait until the end of March before confronting MPs with a choice between her deal or a lengthy delay to Brexit.
But he rejected suggestions that the backstop arrangement – designed to keep the Irish border open in the absence of a wider trade deal – was being treated as a “bridge” to a future UK/EU relationship, insisting instead that it is “an insurance policy that is never intended to be used”.
Answering questions in the House of Commons, Mrs May insisted the Government’s position concerning the Article 50 withdrawal process had not changed.
“We triggered Article 50 – in fact this House voted to trigger Article 50. That had a two-year timeline. That ends on March 29,” she told MPs at Prime Minister’s questions.
“We want to leave with a deal. That is what we are working for.”
Meanwhile shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said Labour was committed to preventing Mrs May from pursuing a “reckless” policy of running down the clock to the point where MPs may be faced with a choice between her deal or no-deal with just days to go to the March 29 deadline.
Labour has tabled an amendment for debate in the Commons on Thursday which would require the Government to either put her deal to a vote by February 27 or allow Parliament to take control of the process.
Sir Keir said Labour would also support a proposal from backbencher Yvette Cooper, which has the backing of senior Tories including former party chairman Dame Caroline Spelman and ex-minister Sir Oliver Letwin.
Ms Cooper’s amendment, expected to be brought to a vote on February 27, would require a vote by the middle of March on delaying Brexit, unless Mrs May secures Parliament’s support for either her deal or a no-deal withdrawal by that time.