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 approved by MPs the same day, which rules out no-deal but is not binding on the Government.
Leading ERG member Mark Francois told the BBC: “We cannot vote for this as it is currently configured because it rules out no-deal and removes our negotiating leverage in Brussels.
“The Prime Minister, if she went through the lobbies for this tomorrow night, would be voting against the guarantees she has given in the Commons for months. It is madness.”
Mrs May’s official spokesman told reporters at a Westminster media briefing: “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”.
There were howls of anger from Eurosceptics over Mr Robbins’s reported comments, with former Ukip leader Nigel Farage calling for him to be sacked for “treachery and incompetence”.
But Conservative vice-chairman Chris Philp said: “What a civil servant might speculate in a bar after a few drinks is frankly not that important.”
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.”
Mrs May spoke with French president Emmanuel Macron and Romanian president Klaus Iohannis on Wednesday evening, Downing Street said.
European Council president Donald Tusk appeared to express frustration with London’s stance.
He tweeted: “No news is not always good news. EU27 still waiting for concrete, realistic proposals from London on how to break #Brexit impasse.”
And Dutch PM Mark Rutte told the Financial Times the Netherlands is already benefiting from businesses relocating from a “diminished” Britain.
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, expected to be debated on February 27, which would require a vote by the middle of March on delaying Brexit.
Veteran Tory Europhile Kenneth Clarke has tabled a further amendment, backed by senior figures from across the House including Harriet Harman, which would allow MPs to vote for their preferred Brexit outcome.
Mr Clarke’s plan, tabled for debate on Thursday, envisages MPs ranking options in order of preference on a ballot paper under the alternative vote system.
An amendment from Labour MP Roger Godsiff calls for an extension of the two-year Brexit negotiation period to allow for a second referendum.
Another tabled by the SNP’s Angus MacNeil calls on Mrs May simply to revoke the Article 50 letter informing the EU of Britain’s intention to leave.
And a cross-party initiative backed by Conservative Anna Soubry and Labour’s Chuka Umunna demands that the Government publish its most recent official briefing on the implications of a no-deal Brexit for business and trade.
Ms Soubry said understood the paper made clear the “ruinous” impact on the economy.
“I am told that it does not mince its words and it makes it very plain that that outcome would be disastrous for British business,” she told the BBC.
Sir Keir was meeting Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and the effective deputy prime minister David Lidington for talks on Wednesday.
“What the Prime Minister is up to is obvious,” Sir Keir told the Today programme.
“She’s coming to Parliament every other week, pretending there’s progress and trying to buy another two weeks, edging her way towards March 21, when the next EU summit is, to try to put her deal up against no-deal in those final few weeks.
“Parliament needs to say ‘That’s not on’.”
He declined to say whether Labour MPs would be disciplined for disobeying the whip in upcoming Brexit votes.
A series of frontbenchers who defied orders to back an earlier Cooper amendment kept their jobs.