A dozen or more government ministers could quit by the end of the month if Prime Minister Theresa May refuses to extend the Brexit negotiating period beyond 29 March, a leading Tory opponent of EU withdrawal has said.
Former attorney general Dominic Grieve said the next round of Brexit votes on 27 February would be a “high noon” moment when resignations on this scale – which he said could include six Cabinet members – might bring Mrs May’s government down.
He was speaking as Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt made clear his unwillingness to accept a no-deal departure, telling hardline Brexiteers in a tweet: “We are not leaving without a deal. If you want to leave, you’d better agree one. In the next fortnight would help.”
Angry Tory loyalists have turned on the party’s Brexiteers after Mrs May’s plans suffered another humiliating Commons defeat on Valentine’s Day.
Business minister Richard Harrington accused the European Research Group (ERG), led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, of “treachery” and said they were “not Conservatives” and should join former Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party.
Defence minister Tobias Ellwood accused the ERG of acting as “a party within a party” and described their behaviour as “provocative”.
Digital minister Margot James last night became the latest figure to rule out remaining in her post under a no-deal Brexit, saying: “I could not be part of a government that allowed this country to leave the European Union without a deal.”
Downing Street insisted the Prime Minister would continue with her negotiating strategy, with ministers dismissing Thursday’s vote as no more than a “hiccup”.
Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom acknowledged that Thursday’s defeat had not strengthened Mrs May’s hand in her effort to persuade the EU to change the proposed backstop arrangements to keep the Irish border open after Brexit.
But she said: “The Prime Minister carries on. She will continue to seek those legally binding changes to the backstop that will enable Parliament to support our deal.
“The one problem with last night’s vote is that it allows the EU to continue with this pretence that they don’t know what we want. They do know what we want.” Ms Leadsom did not discount the possibility of ministerial-level resignations, saying: “Resignations from government do happen ... people have very strong, heartfelt views.”