Theresa May is battling to maintain Cabinet discipline as senior ministers set out rival plans for dealing with the rejection of her Brexit plan.
The Prime Minister insisted the Government was focused on getting her deal through Parliament despite Andrea Leadsom and Amber Rudd speculating about what might happen if MPs throw out the Withdrawal Agreement in January.
Commons Leader Mrs Leadsom said a “managed no-deal” was a possibility, while Work and Pensions Secretary Ms Rudd acknowledged there was a “plausible argument” for a second referendum.
Mrs May said: “Cabinet ministers and I have all been very clear that we are working and focusing on working on ensuring that we can get the deal that we’ve agreed with the European Union agreed and through Parliament in the meaningful vote.”
At a press conference alongside her Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki, Mrs May said the UK was still seeking “greater political and legal reassurances” from the European Union over elements of her plan, particularly the backstop measures designed to prevent a hard border with Ireland, before it is put before MPs in January.
She added: “Everybody is very clear that not only what Government policy is but what we are all individually and collectively focused on is working to ensure that that deal is able to be agreed by and go through a meaningful vote in the House of Commons.”
Mr Morawiecki said he hoped the Withdrawal Agreement would be adopted, saying it was the “best deal possible”.
The Commons showdown over Mrs May’s plan is expected in the week beginning January 14 after being postponed earlier this month because Downing Street feared it would suffer a heavy defeat.
In a sign of a shift in Whitehall’s approach, a no-deal Brexit is now no longer described as an “unlikely” event in a series of documents on preparing for the March 29 2019 withdrawal date.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “It’s a straightforward reflection of the decision that was taken by Cabinet to move to a position where we’re implementing our no-deal plans in full.”
He said it was still the Government’s position that the “most likely outcome” was for Britain to leave the EU with a deal.
The prospect of the deal being rejected by MPs has led to open speculation within Government about what happens next.
A turning point for Brexit? @AmberRuddHR becomes the first Cabinet Minister to suggest there is a route to a second referendum. Watch the full interview tonight at 10.45pm @ITV#Pestonpic.twitter.com/oCJ1AhYyCV
— Peston (@itvpeston) December 19, 2018
Brexiteer Mrs Leadsom suggested she had been looking at the option of a managed no-deal – with a minimalist agreement with the EU – as an alternative.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “A managed no-deal does not necessarily mean there is no Withdrawal Agreement at all.
“This is all speculation but what I am looking at is trying to find an alternative that, in the event we cannot agree to this deal, that there could be a further deal that looks at a more minimalist approach that allows us to leave with some kind of deal and some kind of implementation period that avoids a cliff edge, that avoids uncertainty for businesses and travellers and so on.”
Her comments are at odds with those of some of her Cabinet colleagues, including David Gauke.
He told ministers it was “not a viable option” and “the responsibility of Cabinet ministers is not to propagate unicorns but to slay them”.
The Justice Minister and Lord Chancellor published a photo of himself holding a unicorn, saying it was an “unexpected Christmas gift”.
— David Gauke (@DavidGauke) December 20, 2018
In signs of further division, Mrs Leadsom said a second referendum would be “unacceptable” – just hours after Ms Rudd’s comments.
Mrs Leadsom said it would “undermine the biggest democratic exercise ever, where we had a clear majority to leave the European Union”.
Ms Rudd, a prominent Remain supporter during the 2016 campaign, insisted she was not calling for a referendum but wanted MPs across the Commons to reach a consensus to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
Her intervention was welcomed as a “massive moment” by campaigners calling for a so-called People’s Vote, with Tory former minister Anna Soubry praising Ms Rudd as “brave and principled”.
Ms Rudd backed the idea of an indicative vote to find which Brexit options MPs would be prepared to support if the Prime Minister’s deal is rejected.
The Work and Pensions Secretary told ITV’s Peston: “Parliament has to reach a majority on how it’s going to leave the European Union.
“If it fails to do so then I can see the argument for taking it back to the people again, much as it would distress many of my colleagues.”