Eurosceptic MPs reacted with anger after a top civil servant was overhead in a Brussels bar saying that MPs face a choice between the PM’s deal and a “long” Brexit delay.
Olly Robbins, May’s trusted chief advisor on the EU, reportedly laid down the stark choice was while chatting to colleagues in a hotel in the Belgian capital late on Monday night, ITV reported.
“The issue is whether Brussels is clear on the terms of extension. In the end they will probably just give us an extension,” he is quoted as saying.
“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.”
His comments were seized on by an influential group of hardline Tory Brexiteers, which warned that “officials advise, ministers decide”.
It came as a cross-party group of MPs launched a fresh attempt to prevent a no-deal Brexit if May cannot reach an agreement with Brussels by mid-March.
May, who faces accusations of running down the Brexit clock, has always insisted she was vehemently opposed to any plan that would delay leaving the EU beyond the March 29.
But a number of Cabinet ministers have raised the possibility of an extension.
Robbins, who was said to be talking “in such a manner that you didn’t have to listen hard to hear him”, also allegedly described the controversial ‘backstop’ as a “bridge” to keep the UK in the customs union, rather than a “safety net” to keep people on the island of Ireland needing a ‘hard’ border once more.
“The big clash all along is the ‘safety net’,” Robbins said. “We agreed a bridge but it came out as a ‘safety net’.”
Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the Brexiteer faction of Tory MPs, the European Research Group (ERG), scolded Robbins after the news emerged.
He said: “As a consummate civil servant, Mr Robbins is likely to be appalled by this story.
“Officials advise. Ministers decide. What matters ultimately is the policy of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.”
A separate ERG source directed their ire at May’s leadership, telling HuffPost: “Who’s in charge of this? Either the PM is and this is what she wants, or she isn’t and is just doing what the civil service tells her. Which is it?”
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.”
Meanwhile, group led by 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.
The move follows the announcement by May on Tuesday that she will make a further Commons statement on February 26 and table an amendable motion to be debated and voted on by MPs the following day, if she has not got a deal at that point.
The group say they would then put down an amendment creating parliamentary time for a bill requiring the Prime Minister and Parliament to decide by mid-March whether the UK is leaving with a deal, without a deal or whether it will seek an extension to Article 50.
A similar amendment by Cooper and the Tory former minister Nick Boles was defeated in the Commons last month.
However supporters of the plan believe that as the calendar counts down towards March 29, it will focus the minds of MPs on all sides who believe no-deal would be a disaster for the UK economy.
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, 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.
The Prime Minister told MPs that she would enable the House of Commons to lift a requirement for a 21-day delay before any vote to approve an international treaty.
But Labour pledged to oppose the move, accusing the Government of showing “contempt for our democracy”.