Theresa May could be planning for a general election in June, according to reports, as the prime minister promised to “battle for Britain” during talks with Brussels.
Downing Street advisers are understood to have drawn up plans to extend Article 50 – the clause which triggered the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, then secure the backing of parliament for a new Brexit deal in April before calling a general election in June this year.
Sources quoted in the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Times said the plan would protect the prime minister from being forced out of office by those who want a new leader to negotiate the second stage of the UK’s exit – a new trade deal.
The vote could be held on 6 June and supporters point to fresh polling showing the Conservatives seven points ahead of the Labour party, indicating Mrs May could win.
It came as the prime minister wrote in the Sunday Telegraph, vowing to “battle for Britain” and secure a new Brexit deal to bring the country together.
She said: “When I return to Brussels I will be battling for Britain and Northern Ireland, I will be armed with a fresh mandate, new ideas and a renewed determination to agree a pragmatic solution that delivers the Brexit the British people voted for, while ensuring there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.”
Mrs May added that while Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, did not back her plan in a crunch Commons vote, he does support her bid to win new protections to ensure the backstop deal – a customs plan to avoid a “hard” border between Ireland and Northern Ireland if a free trade deal between the UK and EU is not reached – is not permanent.
Labour backing could be crucial in order to get her deal through the House of Commons.
She wrote: “The clock is ticking, and negotiating the changes MPs want to see will not be easy. But if we stand together and speak with one voice, I believe we can find the right way forward.
“I’m determined to deliver Brexit, and determined to deliver on time – on 29 March 2019. So let’s put aside our differences and focus on getting the deal over the line. Brexit offers great opportunities for our country. It’s up to all of us at Westminster to make it work.”
Downing Street denied claims that aides are planning a general election, calling the reports “completely untrue”.
Meanwhile, Mr Corbyn repeated his call for a snap election during a trip to Scotland.
Speaking on a visit to charities in Glasgow, he said that “the people who are bearing the brunt of nine years of austerity cannot wait years for a general election”.
“They need a general election now,” he added.
Speaking on Sky News, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox indicated he could support a delay to Brexit, but only if the circumstances were right.
Dr Fox, who has previously spoken out against an extension to the Article 50 period, told Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “That was in the context of us not having reached an agreement (with the EU) and simply extending the time. I don’t think that solves anything.
“If we actually have an agreement and it takes a little more time to get the legislation through to make that as smooth as possible I think that’s a very different argument.”
Pressed on the issue he added: “I think there is a big difference between if we have an agreement and we need some time to get the legalities done, that is one thing.
“To extend simply because we hadn’t reached an agreement would not provide any impetus for that agreement to be reached and in any case, there is no guarantee the EU would want to do that.”
Dr Fox also warned that while the UK could handle a no-deal Brexit, it was better to seek a deal.
He told Ridge on Sunday: “We would be able to deal with that scenario but it wouldn’t be in our interest to go there.
“It seems to me we have got to guard against two things. One is an irrational pessimism that says that everything will be a catastrophe and irrational optimism which says everything will be OK.
“The truth lies between the two.”
Dr Fox added: “There would be disruption to our trade but it would be survivable. We wouldn’t want to put our economy into a position of unnecessary turmoil.”
The cabinet minister also cautioned against relying on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.
Some Brexiteers have suggested the UK could leave the EU without a deal and use WTO tariffs and agreements.
Dr Fox said it was time to help strengthen and “update” the organisation, but added: “If WTO was so good people wouldn’t be looking to have trade agreements or customs unions which are ways in which you can further improve on those WTO rules.
“It has always seemed to me a bit strange that people would say ‘well we don’t need to worry about having a future trade deal with Europe, we can operate on WTO terms’, while at the same time saying we should have a free trade agreement with the United States to get away from WTO rules. We have to be consistent.”
Shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti played down the idea that Labour MPs in Leave areas would accept “bribes” from Theresa May to support her Brexit deal.
Following reports the PM would offer incentives to opposition MPs in the poorest areas to secure their backing, Baroness Chakrabarti told Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “I do not believe that Labour voters and the most left behind constituencies would thank their MPs for these short-term isolated bribes. I just don’t see that commanding public confidence and support.”