Theresa May is considering a fourth attempt to bring her EU withdrawal agreement back to the House of Commons this week as pro-EU MPs seek to coalesce around alternative ways forward.
The British prime minister is hoping to persuade Conservative rebel MPs that if they do not fall in line — in a vote that could come as early as Tuesday — Downing Street will be forced into an even softer Brexit.
Mrs May will hold phone calls with cabinet ministers on Sunday after her Brexit deal was voted down for the third time by the relatively narrow margin of 58 votes.
In a bid to break the deadlock at Westminster, Mrs May’s team is also dangling the threat of a general election in front of Tory MPs.
But that plan, which would require the backing of two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons, drew ire from Conservative MPs, with Alan Duncan, the Foreign Office minister, telling the Observer newspaper: “If we have a general election before Brexit is resolved, it will only make things worse.”
A new poll from research group Delta on Sunday put Labour five points ahead of the Conservatives at 41 to 36 per cent.
Mrs May is also struggling to contain growing pressure from Eurosceptic Tories, after 170 MPs — including 10 cabinet ministers — wrote to her demanding a departure from the EU by May 22 “with or without a deal”.
Unless Mrs May’s deal is approved by the Commons, the UK must decide in the next two weeks whether to ask for a long delay to Brexit — which would involve holding elections to the European Parliament.
The only remaining alternatives would be to leave the bloc without an agreement or to revoke the formal Article 50 exit procedure altogether.
Mrs May said Britain would need an “alternative way forward” after her deal was defeated on Friday, the day originally set for Brexit.
The EU has postponed the UK’s exit until April 12 to allow Britain try to resolve the impasse over her deal, which MPs had previously rejected by 230 votes in January and by 149 votes this month.
In a bid to test support for rival plans, backbench MPs will hold a round of “indicative votes” on Monday.
MPs rejected all eight alternative options in a previous attempt to hold such votes last Wednesday. But the rival plans that won the most backing were a customs union with the EU and a second referendum on any deal. Both are backed by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.
MPs behind a softer Brexit are hoping that they can win over the 35 MPs in the Scottish National party. In the votes on the Brexit alternatives last week the SNP backed only a second referendum.
The soft Brexit supporters hope to win a majority for a single plan before bringing forward legislation on Thursday to compel Number 10 to accept it. Number 10 is considering trying to revive Mrs May’s deal by pitching it in a Commons run-off against the preferred alternative.
One critical decision will be whether Number 10 allows cabinet members to take part in Monday’s indicative votes having forced top ministers to abstain last week.
Brandon Lewis, chairman of the Conservative party, said at the weekend that the government did not support any of the rival plans.
But David Gauke, work and pensions secretary said Number 10 had to listen to Parliament.
“I would rather leave the customs union but we also have to recognise that my party does not have the votes to get the manifesto commitment through the Commons. Sometimes you do have to accept your second or third choice to avoid an outcome you think would be even worse,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
“I don’t think it’s sustainable to say we’ll ignore Parliament’s position and leave without a deal.”
If Number 10 puts forward its original deal again, it faces an uphill struggle to win over the remaining rebels, made up of 28 hardcore Eurosceptics and six MPs pushing for a second referendum.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, which provides Mrs May’s minority government with a majority in parliament, insists it will not back the deal.
John Bercow, the Speaker of the Commons has also warned he will not allow further votes on the same motion unless the substance is significantly different.
Nicky Morgan, a former Tory cabinet minister, said one way to end the impasse could be to form a government of national unity involving figures from more than one political party.
Sir John Major, the former Tory prime minister, also suggested that Britain could be heading towards a “unity government”.
“If we have a general election in the autumn . . . and we don’t get a government with a clear majority then I think it will be in the national interest to have a cross-party government so we can take decisions without the chaos we are seeing in parliament at the moment where every single option is rejected,” he told the BBC.
Meanwhile, Dominic Grieve, a pro-EU Tory MP who wants a second referendum, is facing potential deselection after a vote of no confidence from his local Beaconsfield members on Friday night.