Theresa May has been warned she could face a mass revolt of Conservative MPs if the country appears on course for a no-deal Brexit.
The leaders of the 100-strong Brexit Delivery Group of moderate Conservatives wrote to Chief Whip Julian Smith setting out widespread discontent at the prospect of a no-deal departure.
Andrew Percy, one of the group’s leaders, said dozens of his colleagues would be prepared to vote for measures to delay the March 29 exit date if the “intransigence” of hard-line Brexiteers meant Mrs May’s deal is again rejected by MPs.
Fresh Brexit talks have been scheduled for early next week as Mrs May heads towards another Commons showdown on her EU withdrawal stance. It is expected to take place on Wednesday.
In comments apparently aimed at the European Research Group (ERG) of Brexiteers, Mr Percy warned they risked the prospect of Brexit not happening at all unless they compromised and backed a deal.
“Some of my colleagues have got to recognise that the game they have thus far been playing with regards to this whole process is not going to end well for them and could potentially end with the delaying of, perhaps even no Brexit – which some of us have spent a lot of our parliamentary and political careers campaigning for,” he said.
Any move by members of the Brexit Delivery Group would be contingent on it becoming clear any revised deal brought back to the Commons would not be passed.
In their letter, leaked to the Daily Telegraph, Mr Percy and co-leader Simon Hart said: “Numerous members of our group have alerted us to their intention (should rejection of the deal look likely) to get behind amendments that are planned in the name of Oliver Letwin and others and which will have the twin effect of taking no deal off the table and delaying Brexit.”
They urged the Government to consider a free vote so that the MPs could express their views without the damage of a rebellion.
In a further indication of how high the stakes are, up to 25 members of the Government are prepared to rebel and vote for a Brexit delay – something that would require them to resign – unless Mrs May rules out a no-deal scenario, according to the Guardian.
But former Tory leader Lord Howard dismissed suggestions Brexit should be delayed and insisted warnings about the impact of a no-deal departure had been exaggerated.
“We must leave, and I believe we must leave on March 29,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.
Ahead of the looming Commons votes, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox announced they will hold talks again with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier in the coming days on the Northern Ireland backstop.
Mrs May will also travel to an EU-Arab summit in Egypt this Sunday, an event that could give her the chance of face-to-face talks with key national leaders – although Government sources were keen to dampen talk of a “deal in the desert”.
The PM is scheduled to hold a bilateral meeting with European Council president Donald Tusk on Sunday as both leaders attend the summit.
Mrs May spoke with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Thursday night regarding Brexit, Downing Street said.
After talks in Brussels on Thursday, Mr Barclay said both sides had agreed discussions should continue “urgently at a technical level”.
The PM believes securing legally binding guarantees on the backstop is key to getting her Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons.
The backstop arrangements would mean the whole of the UK remains in a customs union with the EU and Northern Ireland following some single market rules until a wider trade deal is agreed, preventing the need for checkpoints on the Irish border.