Cabinet ministers who campaigned for remain have thrown their weight behind hard Brexit policies as Theresa May allies were reported to be secretly planning for a second referendum.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has told the Sunday Telegraph he wanted a “crack” at being prime minister, has said that the UK would “flourish and prosper” if it left the EU with no deal.
And according to the Sunday Times, his fellow remainer and potential rival for the Tory leadership, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, is backing a plan to cut EU immigration to 10,000 post-Brexit with a slew of stricter rules.
It comes as Theresa May’s leadership looks to be under threat despite her surviving a no-confidence motion last week.
The PM was forced to pull the so-called meaningful vote on her Brexit deal last week, recognising that few MPs supported it, and appears to have returned from Brussels without any legally-binding concessions on the controversial Northern Irish backstop.
May has made it clear she would step down before the scheduled 2022 general election and her two cabinet ministers’ bid to re-position themselves on Brexit is a sure sign that the race to succeed her is on.
It has also been reported that May’s allies have held meetings with strongly pro-remain Labour MPs about backing a second referendum - something that May’s defacto deputy PM David Lidington has denied is the case.
Hunt told the Sunday Telegraph: “I’ve always thought that even in a no-deal situation this is a great country, we’ll find a way to flourish and prosper. We’ve faced much bigger challenges in our history.
“But we shouldn’t pretend that there wouldn’t be disruption, there wouldn’t be risk, and there wouldn’t be impact and that’s why as a responsible Government we have to make all the preparations necessary.”
Hunt’s upbeat remarks on a no-deal scenario - saying the UK had faced much bigger challenges in its history - also put him at odds with cabinet colleagues like Justice Secretary David Gauke and Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, however, who have warned about the impact of no-deal.
Asked if he would like to become PM, Hunt added: “I think every MP has a corner of their heart that says they would like to have a crack at the top job. I’m no different.
“But I think the first thing is to get us through this challenging next few months and I passionately believe Theresa May is the right person to do that.”
The Sunday Times reports that Javid, who is set to launch an immigration white paper, wants a “new conversation” on the issue.
Under his plans, the numbers of highly-skilled EU migrants coming to Britain is expected to drop from 15,000 last year to about 11,000 a year.
A source told the paper: “We are going to take full control over who can come to the UK, prioritising those with the skills the UK needs rather than on the basis of which country they come from.”
Meanwhile, May launched a stinging attack on Labour former prime minister Tony Blair for “undermining” EU withdrawal negotiations by calling for a People’s Vote.
The PM 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 and the people he once served.
“We cannot, as he would, abdicate responsibility for this decision.
“Parliament has a democratic duty to deliver what the British people voted for.”