Theresa May is facing another embarrassing defeat after Tory eurosceptics warned they would vote against a symbolic motion on Brexit this evening unless it keeps the option of no deal on the table.
Downing Street denied the Prime Minister was ruling out a no-deal scenario by asking MPs to reaffirm the position following the last series of votes in January, which saw an amendment passed calling for no deal to be taken off the table.
But members of the European Research Group (ERG) said they would not back today’s motion unless the wording was changed, risking embarrassment for the government and undermining attempts to secure concessions from Brussels on the Brexit deal.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the Prime Minister must immediately remove the threat of a no-deal Brexit, warning it “increasingly appears to be the most likely outcome”.
The latest conflict within the Conservative Party follows reports that the Prime Minister’s chief adviser on Europe, civil servant Olly Robbins, was overheard in a Brussels bar saying MPs would eventually be given the choice between accepting Mrs May’s deal or a significant delay to Brexit.
Mr Robbins, who has become a target for attacks by Tory MPs, was also reported to have said the controversial “backstop” provision to prevent a hard border in Ireland would become a “bridge” to the future relationship with the EU, signalling close adherence to Brussels rules.
At Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford told Mrs May she had been “rumbled by your own loose-lipped senior Brexit adviser”.
There were howls of anger from Eurosceptics over Mr Robbins’s reported comments, with former Ukip leader Nigel Farage calling for him to be sacked for “treachery and incompetence”.
But Mrs May dismissed the issue as “what someone said to someone else, as overheard by someone else, in a bar”.
And Conservative vice-chairman Chris Philp said: “What a civil servant might speculate in a bar after a few drinks is frankly not that important.”
Downing Street denied the backstop would serve as a bridge, insisting it was “an insurance policy that is never intended to be used”.
Speaking to the BBC ahead of today’s vote on the government’s “neutral” motion, ERG vice-chairman Mark Francois said: “We cannot vote for this as it is currently configured because it rules out no deal and removes our negotiating leverage in Brussels.
“The Prime Minister, if she went through the lobbies for this tomorrow night, would be voting against the guarantees she has given in the Commons for months. It is madness.”
Mrs May’s official spokesman said: “What the motion reflects is the position the Prime Minister set out after those votes, which is the Parliament wants the UK to leave with a deal, but in order to do so it requires us to secure legally-binding changes in relation to the backstop.”
He added: “No deal is an eventuality we wish to avoid, but one we continue to plan for. Does no deal remain on the table? The answer is yes.”
Labour has tabled an amendment for debate in the Commons today that would require the Prime Minister to either put her deal to a vote by 27 February or allow Parliament to take control of the process.
Veteran Tory Europhile Kenneth Clarke has tabled a further amendment, backed by senior figures from across the House, including Labour’s Harriet Harman, which would allow MPs to vote for their preferred Brexit outcome. His plan envisages MPs ranking options in order of preference on a ballot paper.
An amendment from Labour MP Roger Godsiff calls for an extension of the two-year Brexit negotiation period to allow for a second referendum.
Another tabled by the SNP’s Angus MacNeil calls on Mrs May simply to revoke the Article 50 letter informing the EU of Britain’s intention to leave.
Meanwhile, a cross-party initiative backed by Tory Anna Soubry and Labour’s Chuka Umunna demands the government publish its most recent official briefing on the implications of a no-deal Brexit for business and trade.