Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay today denied suggestions the Government has ruled out a no-deal Brexit.
Senior negotiator Olly Robbins was reported to have been overheard in a Brussels bar saying Theresa May planned to wait until the end of March before confronting MPs with a choice between her deal or a lengthy delay to Brexit.
But Mr Barclay insisted that it remained ‘the agreed position of the Cabinet’ to work to secure a favourable deal but plan for the possibility of no-deal.
ITV News reported that Mr Robbins, who is a key figure in the negotiations with the EU, indicated that if MPs did not vote for a deal then the delay to Brexit would be “a long one”.
He reportedly said: ‘The issue is whether Brussels is clear on the terms of extension. In the end they will probably just give us an extension.
‘Got to make them believe that the week beginning end of March… Extension is possible but if they don’t vote for the deal then the extension is a long one…’
Mrs May has always insisted the UK will leave the EU on March 29 as planned but Mr Robbins’ reported comments fuel suspicions that she is trying to “run down the clock” to Brexit day on March 29 to force MPs to back her deal.
A Government spokesman said: ‘We would not comment on alleged remarks from a private conversation which is said to have been overheard in a hotel bar.’
Asked whether the comments reflect Government policy, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘No. The Prime Minister has been very clear that we are committed to leaving on March 29.’
He added: ‘What came over was actually that it is not in anyone’s interests to have an extension without any clarity. It is actually very disruptive to the European Parliament.
‘They have obviously elections for the Parliament and a Commission that will be formed at the end of May, so there is no desire on the European side to see what one described to me as an ‘extension in darkness’, where there is no clarity as to why we are extending.’
Meanwhile, a cross-party group of MPs is to launch a fresh attempt to prevent a no-deal Brexit if Mrs May cannot reach an agreement with Brussels by mid-March.
The group, including Labour MP Yvette Cooper and Tory former minister Sir Oliver Letwin, have said they are ready to table an amendment enabling Parliament to force ministers to seek a delay if there is no deal in place, preventing the country falling into a no-deal Brexit “by accident”.
Other MPs supporting the move include the senior Labour MP Hilary Benn, Tory former attorney general Dominic Grieve and the Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb.
It is also backed by Tory MP Dame Caroline Spelman and Labour’s Jack Dromey, who last month tabled a non-binding amendment opposing a no-Brexit which did win Commons support.
Earlier, Mrs May set out plans to short circuit parliamentary rules in order to get a Brexit deal ratified in time for the UK to leave the EU on March 29.