Overturning the referendum result would be politically “calamitous” and worse than a no-deal Brexit, Liam Fox has claimed, as Labour looks set to throw its weight behind a plan to delay exit day.
Fox, the international trade secretary, warned on Wednesday morning there was “real danger” of “political consequences” if Article 50 was extended.
George Osborne, the former chancellor, has said he believes a delay is now the “most likely” option.
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, last night said it was “increasingly likely” the party would back a bill from Labour MP Yvette Cooper that would prevent a no-deal Brexit from being triggered on March 29.
The Bill, which has support from a cross-party group of MPs, would tell the government to suspend the Article 50 process if there is no new deal with Brussels by the end of February.
With support from the Labour leadership, it is highly likely to win a majority in the Commons.
Fox told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday morning “there are many who talk about delaying Brexit when what they really mean is not having Brexit at all”, saying that would be the “worst outcome”.
Asked if he believed that a delayed Brexit – via an extended Article 50 period – was worse than a no-deal Brexit, he said: “You need to think about the political consequences as well as the short-term economic consequences.
“There is no doubt that leaving with a deal and minimising disruption both to the UK and our EU trading partners is in our best interest.
“But I think the most calamitous outcome would be for parliament, having promised to respect the result of the referendum, to turn around and say it wouldn’t.”
Osborne, speaking to the BBC in Davos, compared no-deal to Russian roulette, saying the prospect of Britain crashing out of the bloc means “the gun is held to the British economy’s head”.
He added: “I think at the moment delay looks like the most likely option because at least that gives some space to explore whether there’s an alternative deal on the table.
“I doubt there is, but that’s worth exploring, or whether we need to resolve this through a referendum.”
Cooper’s amendment is one of several tabled by MPs to Theresa May’s Brexit deal, the rejection of which by an overwhelming 230 votes last week has thrown into doubt proposals for a backstop to keep the Irish border open.
In a break from usual procedures, the amendments will be voted on by MPs on January 29 in another day of high Brexit drama in the Commons, which could put May under intense political pressure to change course.