Voters will be right to turn on the Conservative party should it allow Britain to crash out of the European Union without a deal, one of Theresa May’s ministers has warned.
With concerns rising about a no-deal Brexit across Whitehall and inside the cabinet, Richard Harrington, a business minister, said that such an outcome would turn “a crisis into a catastrophe”, with manufacturers already stockpiling at the fastest rate since records began in the early 1990s.
His intervention comes as some cabinet ministers are understood to believe that they have less than two weeks to persuade the prime minister to back a delay to Brexit, before a vote in parliament could force her hand.
MPs are due to hold another round of Brexit votes on 14 February. One senior government source said it was now “increasingly hard” to see how Britain would leave on schedule at the end of March.
Writing for the Observer, Harrington calls on MPs to “grasp the nettle” and force through an extension of Britain’s EU membership, should the government and parliament fail to agree an acceptable exit deal. He also issues a stark warning about the electoral consequences for his party should it allow the UK to crash out of the bloc.
“I understand the concerns of some MPs about being seen to delay or frustrate Brexit,” he writes. “And I know that, for others, they just want to ‘get on with it’. But however bracing the prospect of instant liberation from the EU may feel in abstract, that sentiment won’t last long when confronted with the economic, legal and practical reality. In the chaos that followed no deal, voters would turn on the Conservative party, and rightly so.
“So it is time to focus on what in the end matters most – supporting growth and jobs in the UK … a no-deal Brexit would undermine all our efforts. It would entrench the social and economic divisions in this country, not heal them. And it … would turn a crisis into a catastrophe. That is why on 14 February … parliament needs to rule it out once and for all.”
Harrington’s comments reflect a wider concern among Tory modernisers that the party will lose centre-ground voters with its handling of Brexit. However, other senior Tories believe the party now has to embrace being the party of leaving the EU.
One cabinet minister said: “The die is now cast. Our job at the next election, whenever it is, is to win over those old Labour seats that voted to leave. We have to be looking to win the Bishop Aucklands, the Bolton North Easts. That kind of seat. We’ve seen the way #politics has been going.”
With little prospect of the EU making major concessions to May over the withdrawal agreement that was comprehensively voted down last month, some cabinet ministers are already trying to persuade the prime minister to back an extension to article 50 – the legal process for leaving the EU that states Britain ceases to be a member at the end of March.
Business warnings over no deal have been intensifying, with reports that Nissan will announce this week that it is cancelling plans to build its X-Trail model in Sunderland.
A group of ministers believe that, should May not back a delay to Brexit, they will be forced to quit in order to support a plan forcing the prime minister to request an extension to article 50. Some are hoping that they will be given licence to vote for such a move without having to quit.