Senior ministers: Delay Brexit to prevent 'disastrous' no-deal
Video report by ITV News Correspondent David Wood
A trio of pro-EU Cabinet ministers have issued a blunt warning to Tory Brexiteers that Parliament will prevent them forcing a “disastrous” no-deal break with the EU.
Amber Rudd, Greg Clark and David Gauke said the Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG) will only have themselves to blame if Britain’s departure from the EU is delayed.
The Cabinet ministers wrote an article which warned that no-deal would leave the British economy "severely damaged" and "puts the integrity of the UK" at risk.
Their comments are likely to be seen as a thinly veiled warning they could defy the Prime Minister Theresa May to back moves by MPs to prevent a no-deal Brexit in next week’s crunch Commons vote.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly insisted Britain will leave on March 29 as planned.
ITV News Correspondent David Wood said the actions of Rudd, Gauke and Clark are "serious" as they are a "threat to the Prime Minister's authority" as Cabinet is normally united on issues, and that many other ministers may back them.
The move by Rudd, Clark and Gauke infuriated members of the pro-Brexit Tory European Research Group (ERG), who accused the ministers of breaking collective Cabinet responsibility.
Backbencher and ERG member Andrew Bridgen said the trio "should do the honourable thing and resign from the Government immediately".
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 rather than see a no-deal break.
“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, but said the supposed plan "is not going to work".
He continued that it was "only" the threat of no-deal and the UK not paying the EU the £39 billion divorce payment that was "keeping them at the negotiating table".
He added that the EU "would blink" first in negotiations at the "eleventh hour, but we're not there yet, we need to hold our nerve".
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 hard-line 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.
Number 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.