Deep Brexit divisions within Theresa May’s cabinet have been exposed after senior ministers clashed over how to break the parliamentary deadlock.
Amber Rudd broke ranks on Wednesday by saying a fresh referendum was a “plausible” option if MPs fail to agree a way forward before the EU withdrawal date in March.
However Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, a Brexiteer, hit back at her cabinet colleague, saying a second referendum would be “unacceptable”.
The row comes as the prime minister faces near-certain defeat in a parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal next month, which was shelved at the last minute due to fierce opposition from Tory backbenchers.
Ms Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, floated the idea of a Final Say vote on ITV’s Peston, saying: “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.”
Her intervention was hailed as a “massive moment” by People’s Vote campaigners, with Tory former minister Anna Soubry describing it as “brave and principled”.
However Ms Leadsom dismissed Ms Rudd’s comments outright. The Commons leader told the BBC’s Today programme: “It’s not government policy.
“I myself think it would undermine the biggest democratic exercise ever, where we had a clear majority to leave the European Union.
“To have a second referendum would unfortunately be going back to people and telling them they have got it wrong and they needed to try again. I think it would be unacceptable.”
Ms Leadsom confirmed she had been considering plans for a no-deal Brexit, which is the default position if parliament cannot come to some kind of agreement.
She said she was looking at a “managed no-deal”, which some Brexiteers favour, as an “alternative solution” if the prime minister’s deal is voted down.
“A managed no-deal does not necessarily mean there is no withdrawal agreement at all,” Ms Leadsom said.
“This is all speculation, but what I am looking at is trying to find an alternative that, in the event we cannot agree to this deal, that there could be a further deal that looks at a more minimalist approach that allows us to leave with some kind of deal and some kind of implementation period that avoids a cliff edge, that avoids uncertainty for businesses and travellers and so on.”
Ms May was due to meet her Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki for talks in London today, as she desperately seeks further reassurances from EU leaders about the controversial backstop plan before the crunch Commons vote in January.
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