A trio of pro-EU Cabinet ministers have publicly signalled they are ready to back moves to delay Brexit to prevent Britain “crashing out” of the EU without a deal.
Amber Rudd, Greg Clark and David Gauke said it was now clear Parliament would vote to extend the Article 50 withdrawal process rather than an allow a no-deal break.
Their extraordinary intervention was seen as a thinly-veiled threat they could defy Theresa May and back moves by MPs to prevent a no-deal Brexit in next week’s expected crunch Commons vote.
The move infuriated members of the pro-Brexit Tory European Research Group (ERG), who accused the ministers of breaking collective Cabinet responsibility.
Backbencher Andrew Bridgen told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “They should do the honourable thing and resign from the Government immediately.”
The Prime Minister has repeatedly insisted Britain will leave on March 29 as planned.
But writing in the Daily Mail, the Work and Pensions Secretary, the Business Secretary and the Justice Secretary said it was clear that a majority of MPs would support an extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process rather than see a no-deal break.
They said leaving without an agreement in place with Brussels would weaken national security, “severely” damage the economy, and risk the break-up of the United Kingdom.
“If there is no breakthrough in the coming week, the balance of opinion in Parliament is clear – that it would be better to seek to extend Article 50 and delay our date of departure rather than crash out of the European Union on March 29,” they said.
“It is time that many of our Conservative party colleagues in the ERG recognise that Parliament will stop a disastrous no-deal Brexit on March 29.
“If that happens, they will have no-one to blame but themselves for delaying Brexit.”
Mr Bridgen said he believed Downing Street was behind the move in an attempt to pressurise Brexiteers into supporting Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement.
“I think this is partly organised by No 10 to try to bully Brexit supporting MPs into supporting the Withdrawal Agreement. I am afraid this is not going to work,” he said.
However Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood said the statement by the three cabinet ministers reflected a growing tide of opinion among Conservative MPs.
“The penny is dropping, the tide is turning, the dam is breaking,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Choose your metaphor – if there’s no parliamentary agreement soon, more and more colleagues are calling for an Article 50 extension rather than crashing out without a deal.”
Moderate Conservative MPs have already written to Chief Whip Julian Smith to warn they are ready to vote for a delay to the UK’s March 29 exit if the “intransigence” of hardline Brexiteers means Mrs May’s deal is again rejected by the House.
On Wednesday, the Commons is expected to consider an amendment tabled by Labour MP Yvette Cooper and Conservative former minister Sir Oliver Letwin enabling the House to extend the Article 50 withdrawal process if there is no deal by mid March.
A similar amendment was defeated by MPs last month, but there is speculation that enough Tory rebels, alarmed that there is still no deal in place, could be prepared to back it this time round for it to pass.
Talks with Brussels are due to resume next week as ministers continue to seek legally-binding changes to the Northern Ireland backstop, that will enable the PM finally to get the Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons.
MPs in the ERG have warned they will again vote against the deal if they are not satisfied with the changes.
Downing Street has said if there is no deal by Tuesday, the Prime Minister will at that point make another statement to the House and table an amendable motion to be debated and voted on the following day.
Before that, Mrs May will attend the two-day EU-League of Arab States summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh starting on Sunday.
She is expected to take the opportunity to hold one-to-one meetings in the margins of the main conference with key EU figures including European Council president Donald Tusk, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Irish premier Leo Varadkar.
No 10 has played down the prospect of a breakthrough, and there is speculation that Mrs May will say she intends to come back to the House again in two weeks’ time when she addresses MPs on Tuesday.
However, it is unclear whether that will be enough to stave off a revolt by MPs alarmed at the prospect of no deal – including potential ministerial resignations.
The latest development came at the end of an extraordinary week which saw eight Labour MPs and three Tories quit their parties to form a new Independent Group in the Commons supporting a second referendum.
One of the ex-Conservative MPs, Heidi Allen, told the Independent news website that they had agreed they would not do anything which might “facilitate” a general election.
Asked what they would do in the instance of a no-confidence vote in the Government brought by the opposition, she said: “This is all such a jigsaw, it is very hard to game plan.
“But what we have definitely agreed is that anything that would facilitate a general election we wouldn’t support.”