Pressure on Theresa May has reached new heights as ministers backed attempts to let parliament take control of the next stage of the Brexit process and MPs openly speculated that her time in office could end within weeks.
As a beleaguered May returned from Brussels, MPs suggested her deal could lose by an even higher margin, with several saying the timing now required the prime minister to “fall on her sword”.
May wrote to Tory MPs on Friday in an attempt to address some of the criticism and regain control over the process. In her letter, she even hinted she may not bring her deal back to parliament without “sufficient support” and apologised for the tone of her statement on Wednesday night where she blamed MPs for the Brexit impasse.
MPs had earlier suggested that it could be pointless for the prime minister to attempt to pass her deal next week, after a defiant statement by the Democratic Unionist party where they rejected the current state of negotiations. In her letter, May said the decision of the EU council meant she would bring back her deal next week “if it appears there is sufficient support and the Speaker permits it”.
The prime minister said a number of colleagues had raised concerns about her speech in Downing Street on Wednesday. “You have a difficult job to do and it was not my intention to make it any more difficult,” she wrote, offering to hold more meetings with MPs next week.
May will face further pressure from hundreds of thousands of members of the public expected to join the Put it to the People march in London on Saturday to demand a second referendum, after millions signed a petition to revoke article 50.
Meanwhile, the EU increasingly believes a no-deal Brexit on 12 April is the most likely outcome, senior EU officials have said, prompting Emmanuel Macron, the French president, to privately ask Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, if his country could cope.
May’s de-facto deputy, David Lidington, has held advanced talks with senior Tories and opposition MPs to explore ways MPs could be given a say on the next stage of the process. Those familiar with the talks said he appeared to be speaking with the prime minister’s authority.
Greg Clark publicly broke ranks on Friday to say the government should keep its promise to facilitate a process to find a majority for a compromise in parliament. “There’s no reason why the government should be forced to do something that it is committed to do anyway,” the business secretary said.
However, the mood has hardened among some of the initiative’s supporters who have lost trust in the government to decide which options should be put to MPs, and fear a “stitch-up” where options are set up to fail.
May must start her gruelling week on Monday by making a statement to MPs on Brexit, before facing an amendable motion on the way forward.
A key amendment, tabled by Sir Oliver Letwin, Hilary Benn and Dominic Grieve, would set aside Wednesday for MPs to take control of the House of Commons business, in order to hold the series of votes on different Brexit outcomes.
The amendment has been rejected on previous occasions – at the last time of voting it lost by just two votes – but it has secured at least one new supporter, the Tory MP Caroline Spelman, and its backers are now confident of success. Should the amendment pass, May’s meaningful vote could be squeezed into Tuesday.
Subsequent voting options could include the prime minister’s deal, revocation of article 50, a second referendum, a customs union deal, a deal-based single-market model nicknamed “common market 2.0”, a Canada-style agreement, or no deal.
However, it is understood Lidington told MPs he did not want to put “unicorn” options to parliament – and in turn was urged to rule out several options including revocation, as well as a Canada-style agreement, which MPs regard as unrealistic without the Irish backstop.
MPs also insisted May’s deal should not be put to MPs again as an option if it has been defeated for a third time.
Labour’s Stephen Kinnock said it was “vital we only have credible and realistic options on the order paper” and that meant “no options that involve reopening the withdrawal agreement, which is well and truly sealed shut, and no options which are coming out of the blue”.
The Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb, one of the MPs involved in the talks, said he was convinced the government should not dictate what MPs voted on and that options should be selected by the Speaker, John Bercow. “It’s essential parliament controls what we vote on,” Lamb said. “We have got to have confidence in the process that parliament can genuinely express its view.”
Lidington is understood to have expressed some caution about letting Bercow determine which options are put to MPs, saying he “does sometimes select unicorns”, according to one source.
There is also some disagreement as to whether MPs should vote on ballots for as many options they like, or hold rounds of voting where options are narrowed down – a system that could result in parliament sitting until the early hours of the morning.
Jeremy Corbyn also tabled a less prescriptive amendment calling on the government to set aside time for indicative votes naming four options – Labour’s alternative, common market 2.0, a customs union and a public vote.
The Labour leader, who has held a series of meetings with MPs including those supporting a second referendum and those backing common market 2.0, said he was “convinced that a sensible alternative deal can be agreed by parliament, be negotiated with the EU and bring the public together”.
Ministers conceded on Friday that MPs would be likely to be given a free vote. The junior Brexit minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, said it would “be reasonable to have a wide debate in the house to find what the house would tolerate”. Rory Stewart, the prisons minister, said: “Logically speaking, if parliament is to express its view on Wednesday it should be free to express its view.
Conservative Brexiters were seething at the prospect. Steve Baker, one of the key figures in the European Research Group of hard Brexiters, said it would be “a national humiliation”. Marcus Fysh, another Tory opponent of May’s deal, said it was “the most ludicrous, childish and unrealistic idea I have ever seen”.
May was facing mounting pressure to name a timetable for her departure as a final gamble to win Conservative votes for her deal, though Tory sources suggested even that option may not have the desired effect.
The prime minister met Tory MPs who had switched to back her deal on Wednesday night, where MPs in the room said the feeling was that more than half could now switch back again.
One moderate Conservative who backed May’s deal predicted the prime minister would be gone within a month. Another MP said the party would “now do almost anything to get rid of her … If Labour called a confidence vote, it would be very interesting”.
The MP for Clacton, Giles Watling, who had backed the deal, said its success “might require the PM to fall on her sword to get it through”.
May was dealt a further blow to the prospects of passing her deal by a bullish statement from the Democratic Unionist party’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, who called her failure to offer new proposals at the European council “disappointing and inexcusable”.
He also hit out at May’s speech in Downing Street on Wednesday night that blamed MPs for the impasse, saying: “Lectures by the prime minister putting the blame on others cannot disguise the responsibility her government bears for the current debacle.”
He said the DUP had had no new reassurances before the vote that would change their decision to oppose the deal. “Nothing fundamentally turns on the formal ratification of documents which the attorney general has already said do not change the risk of the UK being trapped in the backstop,” he said.