Britain will be “perfectly OK” without a deal on Brexit and should be prepared to walk away from EU talks likely to start formally this week, Boris Johnson has said.
The Foreign Secretary rejected warnings from an influential committee of MPs about “mutually assured damage” in the event of no deal, saying the consequences would not be “apocalyptic”.
His comments exposed a Cabinet split over the prospect of negotiations failing, with the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox saying it would “of course be bad” if no deal was reached. Meanwhile David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, said he was “confident I’ll get a good outcome” from talks with the 27 member states.
Their comments came ahead of a crucial Commons vote on Monday that is expected to clear the way for Theresa May to trigger Article 50 - beginning the two-year process of exiting the EU - as early as tomorrow.
Donald Tusk, the chairman of EU leaders, has said the European Union would be ready to respond within 48 hours of receiving notification.
A Tory rebellion over giving Parliament a “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal, which could have held up the Bill’s passage, is expected to falter, with whips confident the rebels do not have the numbers to overturn the Government’s majority.
MPs have been offered a take it or leave it vote on the deal once the negotiations are complete, but some Tories, including Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary, want a pledge that MPs will be able to debate the deal and demand changes if they are not satisfied.
I don't think that the consequences of no deal are by any means as apocalyptic as some people like to protest
They have asked David Davis to bring the vote forward to October 2018 - six months before the Brexit deadline - to allow time for ministers to go back to the EU and hold further talks.
There is growing concern in Whitehall that EU negotiators could act against the best economic interests of the continent by offering a bad deal to punish the UK for leaving.
The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee warned in a report over the weekend that there was a very real possibility the talks could end with no deal and warned it would be "very destructive" for both Britain and the EU.
The committee said that a failure to put a back-up plan in place would be a “serious dereliction of duty”.
The former minister Anna Soubry made an even more gloomy prediction by suggesting on Sunday that talks could collapse within six months, leaving Britain falling off a cliff edge.
She described Mr Johnson’s comments as “irresponsible nonsense”. Appearing on ITV1’s Peston on Sunday, Mr Johnson insisted a deal is a "very likely" outcome, stressing that the UK has a "robust" economy and a confident negotiating team.
"Our partners and friends around the EU desperately want this thing to work,” he said. “They don't want more misery, they don't want to fall out with the UK."
Asked if the Government is drawing up contingency plans in case there is no deal, Mr Johnson said: "I think that actually, as it happens, we would be perfectly OK if we weren't able to get an agreement, but I'm sure that we will, for the reasons that I gave.
"I don't think that the consequences of no deal are by any means as apocalyptic as some people like to protest."
Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, initially agreed with his fellow Cabinet minister, saying: “Certainly it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we had no deal,” when he appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live, but he staged a U-turn on Sky News later in the morning, saying: “Not having a deal of course would be bad, not just bad for the UK but for Europe as a whole.”
A spokesman for Dr Fox said he was “clear that no deal is better than a bad deal”. Mr Davis said the country would be ready if the negotiations “go wrong”, adding: “We have been planning for the contingency, all the various outcomes, all the possible outcomes of the negotiations.”
Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, said: “It would be a very bad thing for business to crash out with no deal. Business is focused on getting a good deal.”
Lord Heseltine, the former trade secretary, was asked by Robert Peston whether it would be “OK” to quit the EU with no deal. He replied: “It’s rubbish, isn’t it.”
Accusing Mr Johnson of being evasive when he was asked about other subjects, he said: “When I listen to Boris he has turned the art of political communication into a science - he will waffle, charm, delay, anything to stop answering questions. He does it magnificently.”