Theresa May has come under increased pressure to rule out a no-deal Brexit, as manufacturing giant Airbus warned it could lead to “very harmful” consequences for the UK.
A string of union bosses who visited Downing Street for talks on Mrs May’s Plan B for EU withdrawal urged the Prime Minister to take no-deal off the table or ask for an extension of the two-year Article 50 negotiation period.
And business minister Richard Harrington declared he is happy to be sacked by the PM if she objects to him speaking out about the dangers of leaving without an agreement on March 29.
Meanwhile, Chancellor Philip Hammond told a business audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos that a no-deal Brexit would be “a betrayal of the promises that were made” to voters in the 2016 referendum.
In one of the starkest business warnings to date, Airbus chief executive Tom Enders branded the Government’s handling of EU withdrawal a “disgrace” and said the company could pull out of the UK if Brexit undermines its ability to compete.
Mr Enders said the UK’s multibillion-pound aerospace sector is “standing at a precipice”.
He said: “Brexit is threatening to destroy a century of development based on education, research and human capital.
“If there’s a no-deal Brexit, we at Airbus will have to make potentially very harmful decisions for the UK.”
Airbus senior vice president Katherine Bennett later said the Government had asked the company to “make clear the potential impact of a no deal”. But a Downing Street spokeswoman later insisted there was “no knowledge in Number 10” of any request.
Mr Harrington said he was “delighted” Mr Enders is “telling it like it is”.
The minister told an audience of German industrialists that crashing out without a deal would be “a disaster for business”, adding: “I really don’t believe in this idea. I am very happy to be public about it and very happy if the Prime Minister decides I am not the right person to do the business industry job.”
The Number 10 spokeswoman said Mrs May continued to have full confidence in Mr Harrington, adding: “The Prime Minister expects ministers to be focused on getting the Government’s deal through.”
Addressing a CBI lunch in Davos, Switzerland, Mr Hammond said “the only credible and sustainable solution” for the Government is to deliver EU withdrawal in a way which protects the economy.
The Chancellor said: “In the 2016 referendum a promise was made to the majority who voted for Brexit – that they were voting for a more prosperous future.
“Not leaving would be seen as a betrayal of that referendum decision. But leaving without a deal would undermine our future prosperity, and would equally represent a betrayal of the promises that were made.”
Emerging from Downing Street after talks with Mrs May, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said she had not received the guarantees unions are seeking on jobs and workers’ rights.
“The Prime Minister should do the right thing and take no-deal off the table so that genuine dialogue can take place,” said the TUC boss.
Mrs May should “stop listening to the bad boys at the back of the class” who play down the risks of departure without agreement, she said.
The PM invited a string of union leaders to Number 10 as part of her bid to get widespread political backing for a Brexit plan that could command a majority in the Commons after her deal was overwhelmingly rejected by MPs last week.
Unite leader Len McCluskey said he told her companies are putting investment on hold because of uncertainty over the outcome.
Urging Mrs May to extend Article 50 by three months, Mr McCluskey said: “I cannot conceive any prime minister taking us out of Europe with a no-deal. It would be catastrophic.”
Unison’s Dave Prentis said a no-deal Brexit “must be avoided at all costs”, while GMB general secretary Tim Roache said: “We can’t carry on like this. As this crisis worsens, pretending nothing has changed is simply not good enough.”
With 64 days to go until the scheduled date of Britain’s EU withdrawal on March 29, House of Commons Brexit Committee chairman Hilary Benn warned of a “slow haemorrhage” of business from the UK.
The Airbus comments came after P&O’s reflagging of its fleet of ships to Cyprus and Sony’s announcement it is moving its European HQ to the Netherlands, said Mr Benn.
“When is the Government going to make its own announcement that under no circumstances it will allow the UK to leave without a deal so we can stop this slow and damaging haemorrhage?” he asked.
Brexit Minister Chris Heaton-Harris said: “It does beg the reply that why on earth is he not then backing the deal that delivers the certainty all of those businesses he named have asked for?
“I think he needs to look at the deal once again, to deliver the certainty that businesses across the UK require.”
The developments came as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hinted his party might back a parliamentary bid by former minister Yvette Cooper to extend Article 50 unless a deal is reached by the end of February.
While insisting Labour would not decide whether to back the move until closer to a Commons vote next Tuesday, Mr Corbyn said he had met with Ms Cooper and her plan had “a lot of merit”.
Supporters of a second EU referendum pulled a proposed parliamentary amendment to trigger a so-called People’s Vote, saying it could not win the support of the Commons without the “unequivocal backing” of the Labour leadership.
Labour’s Luciana Berger, said it is time for Mr Corbyn to throw his party’s weight behind the campaign for a public vote.
“The clock is ticking and at this late stage, we appeal to Jeremy Corbyn to do the right thing by the majority of our voters, supporters and members and back a People’s Vote,” she said. “The time for action is now.”
One of the amendment’s Tory backers, chair of the influential Commons Liaison Committee Sarah Wollaston, said she expects Mr Corbyn eventually to offer his backing to a People’s Vote.
But she added: “Unfortunately we are rolling ever closer to the edge of a cliff. The time for constructive ambiguity is over.”
Liberal Democrats tabled their own amendment calling for a second referendum with the option to Remain in the EU on the ballot paper.
Meanwhile, former prime minister Tony Blair said he now believes the chances of a second referendum are greater than 50%.