David Lidington, the Prime Minister’s deputy, held discussions over the past week including a key meeting on Thursday and is “working in tandem” with No 10 chief of staff Gavin Barwell, according to a source who spoke to The Sunday Times. In another slap to Mrs May’s authority, Mr Barwell told a cabinet minister that holding a referendum was “the only way forward” as the embattled premier suffered a series of humiliations last week at the hands of Tory MPs and EU leaders. Mr Lidington leads a “gang of five” Tory MPs said to believe a new referendum is the only way to break the deadlock over Mrs May’s deal.
But Amber Rudd, who is one of the five, writing in the Daily Mail yesterday, said she backed the deal and called on MPs to form a cross-party consensus to work side by side on Brexit.
The others in favour of a people’s vote are Philip Hammond, David Gauke and Greg Clarke.
Labour MPs who are said to have taken part on the talks include Chuka Umunna, Ben Bradshaw, Chris Bryant, Angela Smith, Stephen Doughty and Chris Leslie.
One MP said Mr Lidington went “beyond sounding us out about a referendum to appearing to advocate for one.”
And while Nicky Morgan and Oliver Letwin are also in support of Mr Lidington’s plot, many Cabinet ministers are said to be furious with him.
Defence secretary Gavin Williamson is sticking by Mrs May’s side and telling her to continue fighting for her deal while Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, said a second vote would be regarded as “undemocratic”.
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith warned that a fresh vote would cause “all hell would break loose” and blamed Mr Lidington for stirring up the plot, labelling him as “one of the guilty men in this process”.
He added: “What he and others have been doing is giving the EU what they want which is no way out for the UK. They should stop messing around with games about referendums.
“We should have prepared the UK for no deal. Until we can make it clear that we are ready to go to World Trade Organisation terms, she can’t negotiate anything. Just do it.”
During a conference call on Monday with Cabinet members, the Education Secretary Damian Hinds raised the prospect of a series of “indicative votes” on Brexit and was supported by the “gang of five” as well as Karen Bradley and David Mundell, the Sunday Times reports.
They want to see votes in the Commons on Mrs May’s deal, no deal, a second referendum and the Norway option – which would give the UK full access to the single market and likely resolve the contentious issue of the Irish border.
While none of the options would probably win, it is thought the vote on a referendum would lose by the smallest amount and therefore become the solution by default.
Cabinet Office officials under Mr Lidington are also said to be holding talks about offering voters a choice between the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal and a no-deal scenario.
They expect the Commons to amend the legislation to include the option of voting for the UK to remain in the EU.
Mrs May’s backers say if the Northern Ireland backstop included in her deal could have a time limit, it would gain enough votes to pass through Parliament.
Seeking to put talk of a second EU referendum to bed, Mrs May yesterday attacked Tony Blair after he said a fresh vote would be needed if no other option worked.
Mrs May said: “For Tony Blair to go to Brussels and seek to undermine our negotiations by advocating for a second referendum is an insult to the office he once held.
“I have never lost sight of my duty, and that is to deliver on the referendum result.”
Following the Sunday Times report, Education Secretary Damian Hinds insisted a second referendum has not officially been discussed by the Cabinet.
Mr Hinds told Sky News this morning: “No. Government policy couldn’t be clearer. We are here to act on the will of the British people clearly expressed in the referendum.”