Justice secretary David Gauke has become the first cabinet minister to suggest he could quit Theresa May’s government if she seeks a no-deal Brexit.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Gauke warned that the pursuit of this outcome was not a decision the prime minister “can responsibly take” given the economic carnage that would ensue.
The Europhile minister also warned that should parliament reject Mrs May’s compromise Brexit deal, in a vote earmarked for January, it would fuel populism and political parties offering “simplistic solutions”.
The chances of the UK crashing out of the EU are rising, with Mrs May struggling to make progress at a European leaders’ summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday about potential changes to her withdrawal agreement that might persuade sceptical MPs to vote in favour of the deal.
Asked if he could remain in the cabinet in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Mr Gauke said: “I couldn’t support a conscious decision to crash out at the end of March and I don’t think there are many who could.”
Mr Gauke was speaking at the end of an extremely tough week for Mrs May. On Monday she infuriated MPs on all sides by delaying a crunch Commons vote on her Brexit plan because she faced near certain defeat, partly due to fervent opposition from Eurosceptic Conservatives.
Then on Wednesday she won a vote of confidence by Conservative MPs — but saw one-third of the parliamentary party refuse to support her.
Mr Gauke, a loyal supporter of Mrs May, said the failed coup against her by Eurosceptic Tories had been “tiresome”, and warned his party could end up “terribly damaged” if MPs failed to unite behind the prime minister.
“I think there is a wider issue about the rise of populism and it does concern me that . . . the politics of finding solutions of compromise — of working through, of pulling a coalition together to sort out an issue — can be easily undermined or criticised by those who think there are simple solutions to every problem and that all of our problems are created by an out-of-touch elite,” he added.
Stepping up no-deal Brexit planning
As Mrs May grapples with the daunting task of trying to secure parliamentary approval for her Brexit deal, the government has stepped up its contingency plans for the UK crashing out of the EU on World Trade Organization terms.
Mr Gauke said it was “sensible” to draw up such plans, but added MPs should stop pursuing “fantasy options” such as a no-deal Brexit because this would cause “real pain” for Britons.
Widely regarded as a steady hand in government, Mr Gauke has served as work and pensions secretary and exchequer secretary to the Treasury. Former chancellor George Osborne would despatch Mr Gauke to the Commons if he needed crises defusing, using the phrase “uncork the Gauke”.
Mr Gauke is now among half a dozen Europhile cabinet ministers — including chancellor Philip Hammond and education secretary Damian Hinds — who are meeting regularly to work out how to stop a no-deal Brexit.
In recent days, these ministers have been fleshing out the idea of giving MPs “indicative votes” on a range of Brexit outcomes if Mrs May’s deal should be rejected by parliament.
They believe such votes could guide the government’s approach and prove beyond doubt to Eurosceptic Tories that parliament will not vote for a “harder” version of Brexit than that offered by Mrs May’s plan.
Mr Gauke declined to elaborate on the Europhile ministers’ discussions, but said pointedly: “I think at the moment there is a majority against everything in the House of Commons. I hope that over the next few weeks that will shift towards a majority in favour of the prime minister’s deal.”
What are the alternatives to May’s deal?
But with MPs expected to reject Mrs May’s deal, the cabinet’s Europhiles are already examining other “soft” Brexit options such as Norway-style membership of the European Economic Area — and even mulling a second referendum.
Mr Gauke played down the idea that any of these options would be easier than the prime minister’s plan.
He said he had “quite deep concerns” about the long-term sustainability of Britain adopting the Norway model because it would involve free movement of EU nationals and budget contributions to the bloc.
He added he was nervous about a second Brexit referendum because of the “potential democratic consequences” of overturning the first plebiscite.
Many Europhile Conservatives take solace in the idea that a majority of MPs will never allow Britain to crash out of the EU on WTO terms.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has insisted his party would not support a no-deal Brexit, but Mr Gauke said: “I have no confidence or faith in Jeremy Corbyn in the end acting for the national interest when he could bring everything crashing down if he felt that would help bring him to power.”
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