Theresa May is under mounting pressure from Cabinet ministers and junior colleagues to signal that she will not take the UK out of the European Union without a deal on March 29.
The Prime Minister, who faced a potentially difficult Cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning, has been warned that she could face a ministerial rebellion unless she agrees to delay Brexit if her deal fails to win support from MPs.
Across the Commons, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also faced a backlash over the party’s plan to support a referendum on a Brexit deal, with a warning it could prevent him winning the keys to Number 10 at the next election.
In a sign of unrest within the Tory ranks, three ministers threatened to support a fresh attempt to extend Article 50 to stop the UK falling over a “precipice” on March 29 if there was no deal.
Richard Harrington, Claire Perry and Margot James signalled their support for an amendment, drawn up by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Tory Sir Oliver Letwin, which would give the Commons the power to demand a delay to Brexit if an agreement is not in place by March 13.
Ms James told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “As D-Day approaches I think we felt honour-bound to actually do something to help prevent such catastrophe.”
Asked if she would risk resigning or being sacked, she signalled the three had “every reason to hope” that “things would progress more smoothly” because the Prime Minister would give a concession.
“We want to see that deal go through on March 13, but we need the insurance that if it doesn’t get through the default is no longer to allow this country to leave without a deal but to extend Article 50,” she said.
Cabinet ministers Amber Rudd, David Gauke and Greg Clark have already said it would be better to extend Article 50 than leave without a deal on March 29.
There was speculation that as many as 15 ministers could be prepared to join them as patience among MPs opposed to no-deal is stretched to breaking point.
David Lidington, the effective deputy prime minister, stressed that delaying Brexit would only postpone the need for MPs to finally agree to a deal.
“It ends up, if you are not careful, simply deferring the need to face up to taking decisions. It is not an actual alternative course of action in its own right,” he told Today.
But he added: “I don’t think anybody in the Government has ever shied away from the fact that a no-deal exit would impose considerable costs to the British economy.”
Meanwhile, further details emerged about Labour’s position on a second referendum – a shift which has won plaudits from pro-EU MPs but led to warnings of electoral disaster in leave-supporting heartlands.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer confirmed that if Theresa May’s deal got through Parliament, Labour’s policy was for it to be put to a referendum – with remaining in the EU as the alternative option.
“We specifically agreed yesterday, as the Labour Party, that if the Prime Minister’s deal gets through, that deal should be subject to the lock, if you like, of a public vote in the way that Jeremy spelled out yesterday,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Sir Keir, who said he would vote to remain in the EU, rejected claims from anonymous sources who had briefed that shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry “misspoke” when she set out the position on the referendum.
Asked if advisers in Mr Corbyn’s office did not agree with the position, Sir Keir said “elected politicians” – rather than aides – were setting out the Labour position.
I've seen some nonsense that I "misspoke" earlier on a public vote. Pretty hard to misspeak identically in 10 interviews, but for clarity: if Theresa May won't accept our deal, then the public must decide: do we accept whatever deal she gets through, or do we Remain? Got it?
— Emily Thornberry (@EmilyThornberry) February 26, 2019
Ms Thornberry said: “I’ve seen some nonsense that I ‘misspoke’ earlier on a public vote.
“Pretty hard to misspeak identically in 10 interviews, but for clarity: if Theresa May won’t accept our deal, then the public must decide: do we accept whatever deal she gets through, or do we Remain? Got it?”
Asked about a potential Labour revolt over a referendum, Sir Keir acknowledged: “I’m well aware of different views across my own party and across Parliament on pretty well all Brexit issues.”
But Labour MP John Mann warned of electoral catastrophe for Mr Corbyn’s party in leave-voting areas in the Midlands and northern England as a result of the move.
He told Today: “Voters won’t have it. The last person to renege on their manifesto was Nick Clegg, it didn’t end very well for him on tuition fees.
“Our manifesto was unambiguous, we would accept the result of the referendum. A second referendum doesn’t do that and the voters – in very, very large numbers – will not accept that.”
Labour in danger of overturning an election promise to respect the 2016 Referendum result. We can’t ignore millions of Labour Leave voters. There are Labour MPs like me who will not support a second ref. @jeremycorbyn give us a free vote so Labour MPs can keep their promises
— Caroline Flint (@CarolineFlintMP) February 25, 2019
Former minister Caroline Flint said she would not support a second referendum: “We can’t ignore millions of Labour leave voters.”
And Lucy Powell said she “remained to be convinced” on supporting a second referendum, predicting around 25 of her colleagues would not vote for it.
Mrs May will address MPs on Tuesday afternoon ahead of another series of Brexit votes on Wednesday.
The Government is expected to publish previously unseen Cabinet papers setting out the dangers of a no-deal Brexit before the debate.
Meanwhile, British negotiators will return to Brussels on Tuesday to continue talks to secure changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.