It is “certain” that MPs will vote on Thursday to authorise Theresa May to seek a delay to Brexit, Chancellor Philip Hammond has said.
And European Council president Donald Tusk indicated that the EU may be ready to offer a lengthy extension to negotiations if the UK wants to “rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it”.
The Chancellor denied being at odds with the Prime Minister, after he called for Parliament to seek a “consensus” solution to Brexit and to “explore other options” if her deal is voted down for a third time next week.
But Labour called on him to join them in cross-party talks on finding a “compromise” which can command the support of Parliament, after Mrs May’s authority was severely dented by three defeats in the space of 24 hours.
Mr Hammond is the most prominent of a group of Cabinet ministers suspected by Leave-backing Tories of being prepared to accept a “softer” form of Brexit.
There have been calls for the removal of four Cabinet ministers, Greg Clark, Amber Rudd, David Gauke and David Mundell, and several of lower rank who failed to vote with the Government on a motion ruling out a no-deal Brexit.
Work and pensions minister Sarah Newton quit the Government to vote for the motion.
But Mr Clark told ITV1’s Peston that the decision to whip the vote was made “very late in the day” without collective discussion, and the abstainers believed they were acting “completely in accordance with long-standing Government policy”.
Mr Hammond said there was “confusion” around the vote and told Sky News: “I don’t expect there to be mass sackings as a result of last night.”
There were suggestions as Mrs May went down to a 43-vote defeat on Wednesday that ministers had been assured they would not face repercussions for defying the whip.
But one abstaining minister told the Press Association: “I wasn’t told anything other than to vote against the amended motion.”
And health minister Stephen Hammond said he had received no assurances he would keep his job.
MPs will vote on Thursday on a Government motion proposing to seek a delay in the date of Brexit from March 29 to June 30 if the Commons approves Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement in a third “meaningful vote” by next Wednesday.
But the motion warns that if the deal, already rejected by 230 votes in January and 149 this week, fails again, the UK may have to accept a longer extension and take part in European Parliament elections in May.
Senior ministers were meeting for a special political Cabinet at 10 Downing Street as debate gets under way in the Commons.
Conservative MPs have been granted a free vote on the motion, but it remains unclear whether they will be whipped to oppose amendments designed to pave the way for a second referendum or block a so-called People’s Vote.
A cross-party amendment tabled by prominent backbencher Sir Oliver Letwin, Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper calls for indicative votes to be held on March 20, to allow the Commons to demonstrate what kind of deal it will support ahead of a Brussels summit the following day.
Labour has tabled an amendment demanding an extension to “provide Parliamentary time for this House to find a majority for a different approach”.
Any extension must be approved unanimously by the 27 remaining EU states, and Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl said there could be “some problem” in obtaining this if it took Brexit beyond the date of elections.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney told RTE radio: “If you have a long extension of, say, 21 months to the end of 2020 – whatever the period would be – then Britain has a legal entitlement to have representation in the European Parliament” and so must take part in EU elections.
Mr Tusk said he would appeal to leaders at the European Council summit to be “open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it”.
Philip Hammond urged hard Brexiteers to consider backing Theresa May’s deal when it returns to the Commons.
“I understand why they may not find the Prime Minister’s deal perfectly in line with their view of the optimum future relationship,” he told Sky News.
“But it is clear the House of Commons has to find a consensus around something, and if it is not the Prime Minister’s deal, I think it will be something that is much less to the taste of those of the hard Brexit wing of my party.”
And he added: “I am very happy with the Prime Minister’s deal.
“I would be delighted if a consensus emerges behind the Prime Minister’s deal over the next day or two.
“But I think we also have to explore other options for Parliament to express a view about how we resolve this impasse.”
Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell urged him to get involved in talks on a compromise option.
Mr McDonnell told Sky: “Philip Hammond said he was opposed to no deal and was interested in compromise.
“We are saying to Philip Hammond ‘You said yesterday you and other MPs in your party are looking for compromise. Join us now in working through that compromise, because we think MPs, in the interests of the country, will put party politics aside and do that’.”
Mr Hammond told the Today programme that the Government would continue to try to build support for Mrs May’s deal, but added: “Whatever happens, if we don’t get the deal through in the next couple of days, the Prime Minister has to go the European Council next week and seek an extension of time – I’m certain that she will be mandated by Parliament today to seek an extension of time.
“And the European Union is going to ask us ‘What do you want this time for? What is the process now?’ and the House of Commons, if it can’t agree the deal over the next few days, has to decide what the answer to that question is.”