The prime minister held a conference call with her bitterly divided cabinet from the country retreat of Chequers on Sunday evening.
Cabinet sources said the consensus on the 90-minute call was to renew efforts to find acceptable changes to the backstop arrangement but that the conversation was light on specifics. One said there were “no actual solutions” proposed during the call.
“It is difficult to know – as ever – what she will do,” another said. “But the broad agreement is on the need to bring DUP and Tory rebels on board.”
Despite her claim in the wake of last week’s significant defeat in parliament that she would speak to “senior parliamentarians” from all parties to seek a compromise, government sources insisted her overriding priority was to prevent a historic split in the Tory party.
Several senior Conservative MPs have suggested they could form a breakaway party if May opted to support a customs union – one of Labour’s central demands, which is also backed by Tory supporters of a Norway-style soft Brexit.
Whitehall sources said the prime minister’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had counselled her to consider a customs union after last week’s catastrophic defeat, when her deal was rejected by an overwhelming majority of 230 votes.
But when the government tables a formal statement on Monday, setting out its next steps, it is instead expected to focus on seeking changes to the Irish backstop in order to win over Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group and the DUP.
The prime minister could then travel to Brussels as early as Monday evening – though Downing Street denied it would be that soon.
May’s move comes as fresh polling evidence suggests the public are sanguine about the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.
A poll by ICM conducted after last week’s government defeat and seen by the Guardian asked voters what should happen next.
The most popular option, backed by 28% of voters, was a no-deal Brexit. Demonstrating the divide in public opinion, the next most popular option, supported by 24% of the public, is to start the process of holding a second referendum.
In the representative online poll of 2,046 adults between 16–18 January, just 8% thought May should press ahead with trying to win support for her deal in parliament, while 11% thought she should call a general election.
Earlier on Sunday, Liam Fox said it was “the overwhelming view” among party colleagues that the prime minister’s deal was salvageable if she could get change on the backstop.
“That seems to me to be the area that we’re coalescing around,” the international trade secretary said. “A lot of my colleagues in the House of Commons have said that if we make changes on the backstop we’d be willing to vote for the agreement.”
However, Downing Street and Irish government sources poured cold water on reports that the government was considering the possibility of a joint UK-Irish treaty that would replace the backstop.
The plan is favoured by some hard Brexiters, including the former cabinet minister Owen Paterson, and was given some weight by Fox, who said he favoured a “different mechanism” to prevent a hard border.
“Of course both Ireland and the United Kingdom have both said that we don’t want to see a hard border and the Irish prime minister has said in the event of no deal, he wouldn’t want to see a hard border,” Fox said. “Now given that we’re in that same place that should be the area that we need to look to find some compromise.”
However, a Downing Street source said the plan was “not one we recognise”. Irish sources said the government would reject any approach from May for a bilateral side deal, calling the idea a “non-starter” and saying the EU was very clear the withdrawal agreement could not be reopened unless May changed her red lines.
A No 10 source also dismissed reports that the Good Friday agreement could be amended to add a clause pledging there would be no hard border, saying it was not under consideration and had not been discussed on the call.
The Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said: “I can assure you that the Irish government’s commitment to the entire withdrawal agreement is absolute, including the backstop to ensure, no matter what, an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the Good Friday agreement, are protected.”
“The solidarity in the EU is complete there, as Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker made clear: they are waiting to see what Theresa May’s plan B is,” an Irish government source added. “From our perspective, a bilateral deal is just not a credible proposal.”
Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, was sceptical on Sunday that British attempts to push Dublin to accept changes to the backstop would bear fruit for the UK. Asked by the German ZDF television about reports of talks between Britain and the Irish government, Maas said the UK’s goals were “a mystery”.
He said: “We have to negotiate and also agree a withdrawal agreement with Britain. It is a bit of a mystery to me what the British government wants to negotiate with Dublin or what sort of an additional agreement it should be. It won’t have any effect on what was agreed with the [European] commission.
“All 27 members must agree. In the last few days there have been relatively clear statements that there are many who are not ready to and there are some that are open to it. We have to wait to see what the Britons suggest.”
No 10 has repeatedly denied that it is preparing for a general election to break the deadlock, but the Conservative MP Huw Merriman became the first Tory to admit the possibility was likely on Sunday.
“When parliament can’t pass laws, not just on Brexit but on other matters, and the government cannot govern through that, then that’s normally when you have a general election,” he told the BBC.
Tory chair Brandon Lewis emailed all Conservative members on Sunday asking for donations with the subject line “Corbyn wants an election,” though he later insisted the party was preparing for local elections in May.
Former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown has stepped up his calls for article 50 to be extended for a year, so that a series of citizens’ assemblies could be held to determine what should happen next.
“Parliament must inflict a second defeat on the government – by voting next Tuesday to extend article 50 for a year. Not as a delaying tactic but for a purpose: to enable a process of nationwide consultation and reflection,” hewrote in the Guardian.
“Key to this would be a series of citizens’ assemblies whose thinking would then lead to constructive reconsideration by parliament of our relations with Europe, including the options of a renegotiation followed by a referendum. The direct engagement of the British people is now essential to address the triple challenge of a government defying the sovereignty of parliament, an evermore divided country, and mounting distrust between parliament and people,” he wrote.
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