An attempted cabinet coup against Theresa May appeared to be dead after two senior ministers being lined up to replace her said they wanted the prime minister to stay in post.
Michael Gove and David Lidington both backed May to continue despite reports that 11 cabinet ministers want her to stand down and make way for a caretaker leader.
May’s deputy Lidington was named by The Sunday Times as the frontrunner to take over and guide through Brexit while the Mail on Sunday said Gove, the environment secretary, was being lined up by a rival faction.
But Gove said he was “absolutely” behind the PM while Lidington said she was doing a “fantastic” job.
May met prominent Brexiteers at her country residence, Chequers, on Sunday afternoon, before convening a meeting of the Cabinet on Monday morning.
Among those attending “lengthy” talks in Buckinghamshire were ministers Lidington, Gove and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, along with Chief Whip Julian Smith, and eurosceptic backbenchers Iain Duncan Smith, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Dominic Raab.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “The PM and a number of Government ministers met today at Chequers for lengthy talks with senior colleagues about delivering Brexit.
“The meeting discussed a range of issues, including whether there is sufficient support in the Commons to bring back a meaningful vote this week.”
Gove urged MPs to back May’s beleaguered Brexit deal in the next few days to resolve the political crisis gripping the UK.
He told BBC News: “This is a time for cool heads.
“What we absolutely need to do is focus on the task in hand, which is making sure we get the maximum possible support for the prime minister and her deal.
“We need to make sure colleagues in the cabinet and across the country recognise that in the course of this week we have very important decisions to make.
“I hope as many people as possible will recognise that the best way of honouring the referendum mandate and making sure we leave in an orderly fashion is to support the prime minister and her efforts.”
“It’s not the time to change the captain of the ship, I think what we need to do is chart the right course.
“And the prime minister has charted that right course.”
Lidington told reporters in his Aylesbury constituency: “I don’t think that I’ve any wish to take over from the PM (who) I think is doing a fantastic job.
“I tell you this: one thing that working closely with the prime minister does is cure you completely of any lingering shred of ambition to want to do that task.
“I have absolute admiration for the way she is going about it.”
Lidington also said he was “not attracted by” nor had time for plotting.
“I’ve learnt to take rumours in the papers with a bit of a pinch of salt over the years.”
It came as Barclay suggested May could try and call a general election if MPs back an alternative to her withdrawal deal that runs contrary to the Conservative Party manifesto.
The government is preparing to offer MPs the chance to choose their preferred Brexit model in so-called indicative votes, while a rival backbench plan is also under way to secure a similar Commons-led process.
Barclay however said the government will not be bound by the result and suggested an election could be called if MPs back a soft Brexit deal involving a customs union or single market relationship with the EU, which currently appears the leading candidate to win any indicative votes.
The Brexit secretary said that model would run contrary to Tory manifesto pledges and would still need May’s withdrawal agreement to be passed to make it a reality.
He told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “The vote itself would potentially collide with fundamental commitments the government has given in the manifesto, so one of the key issues there is you potentially have parliament instructing the government to do something which is directly counter to what it was elected to deliver.
“What parliament is doing is vote for a number of contradictory things so we would need to untangle that.
“But ultimately at its logical conclusion the risk of a general election increases because you potentially have a situation where parliament is instructing the executive to do something that is counter to what it was elected to do.”
Barclay went on: “There is a constitutional collision if parliament is instructing the government to do something which is fundamentally against what it has been elected to do.
“The legal position - the clue is in the name, it’s indicative votes, it is not of itself binding.
“Part of the question would be is whether then parliament would seek to legislate (to give the result force).”
He went on: “In that instance, parliament wold in essence have been saying we are legislating to take no deal off the table but we are also not voting for the deal.
“The only consequence of that would be European parliamentary elections.
“And I think for many in the Conservative party, but in parliament as a whole, that would run directly counter to what people stood in the manifesto (for).”
Under the fixed term parliament act May would need two-thirds of MPs to back an election to make it a reality.
But Barclay’s position was supported by Tories on both sides of the Brexit divide.
Mental Health Minister Jackie Doyle-Price said: “It’s a statement of the bleeding obvious. If parliament stops government from governing the result is paralysis and a general election is inevitable.
“Pretty clear what faces us this week. This deal or no Brexit. It is the future relationship that matters more than the withdrawal agreement.”
Brexiteer backbencher Simon Clarke said: “Would be the constitutionally correct position. And better that, surely, than our being reduced to the transmission mechanism for policies that are not our own - and which fly in the face of the promises on which we were elected.”
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer made clear Labour would not support any government plan to hold indicative votes that it could ignore.
He told Marr the critical question was ‘is this a serious exercise?’
Sir Keir went on: “My biggest fear about this is if the prime minister is going to let a process begin but she won’t own the outcome, she will collapse it if we find a majority and I think she may want then to try her vote on her meaningful vote again and that would make a bad situation even worse.”