A cross-party group of senior MPs has launched a bid to force Theresa May to stop no-deal Brexit by tabling a bill requiring the Prime Minister to extend the negotiation process beyond April 12.
Following the failure of MPs to unite behind an alternative to Mrs May’s plan on Monday, the group, including Conservative grandee Sir Oliver Letwin and Labour’s Yvette Cooper, aims to pass the bill through the Commons in a single day on Wednesday.
The move was announced as Mrs May and her senior ministers were locked in a mammoth Cabinet session lasting more than seven hours at 10 Downing Street to try to break the Brexit deadlock.
And EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said a no-deal departure was becoming “day after day more likely”.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned that an extension to the Article 50 negotiation process cannot be taken for granted, and that the UK would have to present a “credible alternative plan backed by a majority” at next week’s summit in order to secure it.
Speaking alongside Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar before talks in Paris, Mr Macron said: “Should the United Kingdom be unable – three years after the referendum – to propose a solution backed by a majority, they will de facto have chosen for themselves to leave without a deal. We cannot avoid failure for them.”
A leaked letter from cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, obtained by the Daily Mail, showed that the UK’s top civil servant has warned of 10% food price hikes, economic recession and disruption to security if Britain crashes out without a deal.
The single-clause Cooper bill requires the Prime Minister to table her own motion seeking MPs’ approval for an extension to the Article 50 process of Brexit talks to a date of her choosing.
The group behind the bill, which also includes former Tory chair Dame Caroline Spelman, Commons Brexit Committee chair Hilary Benn, former attorney general Dominic Grieve and Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb, hopes once it has passed the Commons it could be approved by the House of Lords and granted Royal Assent in time for the emergency EU summit on April 10.
Ms Cooper said: “We are now in a really dangerous situation with a serious and growing risk of no-deal in 10 days’ time. The Prime Minister has a responsibility to prevent that happening.
“She needs to put forward a proposal, including saying how long an extension she thinks we need to sort things out.
“If the Government won’t act urgently, then Parliament has a responsibility to try to ensure that happens even though we are right up against the deadline.”
“We realise this is difficult. But it is definitely worth trying.”
MPs rejected a call for a customs union with the EU by just three votes on Monday, while a demand for a second referendum was defeated by 12 and a “Common Market 2.0” deal by 21.
Number 10 officials are understood to have indicated that if the Prime Minister could not get her Withdrawal Agreement through on a fourth vote then she would seek a longer extension to the Brexit process “possibly until the end of the year”.
But she is believed to favour a no-deal Brexit rather than the possibility of revoking Article 50 if the choice came to it.
But such a move would cause deep splits within the Cabinet, with Brexiteer ministers strongly opposed to anything which would prevent the UK being able to strike free trade deals.
Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting began with a “political” session in the absence of civil servants, which one Government source said was aimed at finding “which option could the party stomach and which option could the country stomach”.
Chancellor Philip Hammond is understood to be urging colleagues to accept a compromise which prevents either a no-deal scenario or no Brexit at all.
That could include either a customs union or a second referendum – the two most popular options in the indicative votes process.
Mr Barnier said that unless MPs vote for the Withdrawal Agreement within the next few days, the only remaining options for the UK are to quit the EU without a deal or seek an extension to Article 50.
A no-deal Brexit was “never our desired or intended scenario” but “becomes day after day more likely”, he said.
Speaking in Brussels, Mr Barnier said: “An extension would carry significant risks for the EU. Therefore a strong justification would be needed.”
Mr Barnier warned that a no-deal Brexit would not end wrangles over the Irish border, citizens’ rights and the UK’s financial liabilities, which would be reignited within months in a more difficult atmosphere.
“If there is no deal and the UK wants to discuss trade or other subjects, we will put the same subjects back on the table,” he told MEPs on the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs.
“If there is no deal, the atmosphere will be different. The lack of a deal means a lack of faith, a lack of deal means a rupture in confidence between us,” he added.
In his letter to ministers, obtained by the Daily Mail, Sir Mark Sedwill warned of likely consequences of a no-deal Brexit, including:
– A UK-only recession, meaning that the expected fall in the value of the pound will be “more harmful” than during the 2008 global crisis;
– A 10% spike in food prices;
– The collapse of some businesses that trade with the EU, with pressure on Government to bail companies out;
– Disruption to national security and reduced law and order capabilities;
– Reintroduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland for the first time since 2007.