Amber Rudd – one of Theresa May’s strongest allies – acknowledged her comments would “distress” some of her Tory colleagues and stressed she was fully committed to the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal.
The work and pensions secretary insisted she did not want a referendum and called for MPs across the Commons to reach a consensus as a way of preventing a no-deal Brexit if Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement is thrown out in January’s parliamentary showdown.
But her intervention was welcomed as a “massive moment” by campaigners calling for a so-called People’s Vote, with Tory former minister Anna Soubry praising Ms Rudd as “brave and principled”.
Ms Rudd backed the idea of an indicative vote to find which Brexit options MPs would be prepared to support if the Prime Minister’s deal is rejected.
The work and pensions secretary told ITV’s Peston: “I don’t want a people’s vote or a referendum in general, but if Parliament absolutely failed to reach a consensus I could see there would be a plausible argument for it.”
She added: “Parliament has to reach a majority on how it’s going to leave the European Union.
“If it fails to do so, then I can see the argument for taking it back to the people again, much as it would distress many of my colleagues.”
Ms Rudd said an indicative vote would “flush out” MPs by forcing them to show their support for one option or another and encourage those whose favoured ideas are rejected to reach a compromise.
“We are going to have to find a way, as MPs, of working together to find a consensus, of agreeing on how to stop no-deal taking place,” she said.
Her comments were seized on by pro-EU campaigners.
Labour’s Owen Smith, a backer of anti-Brexit group Best for Britain, said: “Amber Rudd may be the first Tory Cabinet member to say she’d rather have a people’s vote than allow a catastrophic no-deal to unfold, but she won’t be the last.
“This is a massive moment for our campaign.”
Meanwhile Ireland followed the UK and the European Union in setting out the latest stages of its no-deal Brexit planning.
“In many significant ways, a no-deal Brexit would pose unique, unprecedented and extremely difficult challenges for the EU, including Ireland, and especially the UK,” the Irish Government document said.
As part of the plan, Dublin Port is creating extra parking for hundreds of trucks from the UK awaiting inspection after Brexit.
In London, Mrs May will meet her Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki for talks.
The discussions are expected to focus on defence and security co-operation, but come as the Prime Minister is desperately trying to secure further reassurances from EU leaders about the Northern Ireland backstop measures in the Brexit deal before the crunch Commons vote in the week starting 14 January.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who met the Prime Minister on Wednesday, said Mrs May’s goals were “a wee bit nebulous”.
“There’s not a lot of detail there,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“She says she’s working with the EU, trying to find assurances. I pressed her to give a bit more detail on that. I have to say it wasn’t forthcoming.”