Cabinet tensions over the prospect of a no-deal Brexit broke into the open again as the Government floated the idea of delaying the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
Justice Secretary David Gauke insisted quitting the bloc without an agreement would be “pretty disastrous” after Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom said ministers should back Theresa May’s stance of leaving the option on the table.
Mr Gauke also suggested that he backed MPs being given a free vote on some Brexit issues.
Asked if he believed it would be “pretty disastrous” for the UK to leave the EU without a deal, Mr Gauke told the BBC: “Yes, I do.”
Mr Gauke said he would need to “consider his position” if a no-deal policy was adopted when other options were available.
He said: “What I have said repeatedly is if there is a conscious choice ‘right, that’s it, we’re going no deal’ when there are other options available, that would be something I would find extremely difficult.
“And, given the requirements of collective responsibility, then, obviously, I’d have to consider my position.”
Pressed on whether he backed MPs being given a free vote on extending Article 50 when amendments to the Government’s Brexit motion are debated in the Commons next Tuesday, Mr Gauke said: “I think there is a case for free votes in this area to resolve things.
“As far as Tuesday is concerned... we need to see what all the amendments are going to be, to see whether Tuesday is a crunch point or not.
“I do think that Parliament is entitled to be involved in this process.
“That we should not be in a position where we, sort of, railroad this through Parliament without Parliament giving its consent.”
The comments came as Mrs Leadsom signalled that the UK could remain in the EU beyond the scheduled March 29 exit date.
The Commons Leader told BBC2’s Newsnight: “We can get the legislation through.
“And in particular I think we do, in spite of everything, have a very strong relationship with our EU friends and neighbours and I’m absolutely certain that if we needed a couple of extra weeks or something, that would be feasible.”
Mrs Leadsom said that with “good will” the necessary legislation could go through Parliament on schedule.
Stressing the need for Cabinet unity on the possibility of a no-deal exit, Mrs Leadsom said: “I’m totally aligned to the Prime Minister. I believe that is where collective responsibility should lie.
“So number one, the legal default is we leave the EU on March 29 without a deal unless there is a deal is in place.
“That hasn’t changed. That is the Prime Minister’s view and that’s my view.”
Mrs Leadsom’s comments came after Chancellor Philip Hammond declined to rule out quitting his post if the UK goes through with a no-deal Brexit.
Mr Hammond said a no-deal Brexit would cause “significant” disruption and damage to the economy, and that it went against what Leave voters had been told before the 2016 referendum.
Ireland’s Europe minister, Helen McEntee, insisted that a backstop to prevent a hard border was “absolutely necessary” due to the UK’s red lines on leaving the single market and customs union.
The backstop would see the UK obeying EU customs rules if no wider trade agreement is settled after a transition period.
Ms McEntee told the BBC: “It is because of those red lines that a backstop is absolutely necessary.
“I think now, for some reason, the onus by the UK has been shifted back on Ireland. That we should compromise. That we are the ones that are trying to be awkward or difficult.
“We are protecting a peace process. There is an obligation on the UK to ensure that the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement, is protected.
“And any suggestion that they can walk away from that, we simply won’t accept that.”
The repercussions of a no-deal scenario could be similar to the national emergency faced by Iceland during the volcanic eruptions in 2010, according to the Cabinet Office, the Guardian reported.
The impact on Iceland from the volcanic ash clouds is seen as a useful example by the Cabinet Office of the kind of escalating disruption that could face the UK this spring, according to the newspaper.
Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph reported that concern over how the PM is handling Brexit is causing donors to refuse to give money to the Tory party.
The Midlands Industrial Council secretary David Wall told the newspaper: “With the level of confusion within Parliament at the moment - the uncertainty over a possible election, a possible change of leader - most donors are reluctant to make donations at this time.
“We all need some clarity on what direction the Conservative Party and the Government are going in.”