Boris Johnson was accused on Monday of deliberately “goading” Conservative rebels into voting down his Brexit strategy so that he can purge them from the party and then hold a snap general election.
David Gauke, one of the leading Tory rebels opposed to a no-deal Brexit, said Mr Johnson was taking a “confrontational” approach and was doing nothing to try to head off a defeat in the Commons this week.
“They’re almost goading people into voting against the government,” Mr Gauke said, as around 15 Conservative MPs considered voting with Labour and other opposition parties to try to halt a no-deal exit.
Mr Johnson has warned the rebels they will lose the party whip and be banned from standing as Conservative candidates in an election which some believe he could call within days if he is defeated in the Commons this week.
“I think their strategy, to be honest, is to lose this week and seek a general election having removed those of us who are not against Brexit or leaving the EU but believe we should do so with a deal,” Mr Gauke told the BBC Today programme.
The pound was down 0.65 per cent against the dollar at $1.208 by mid-morning on Monday as the battle within the Conservative party over the shape of the UK’s exit from the EU intensified.
Mr Johnson’s aides privately confirm they are ready to hold an election if parliament ties the prime minister’s hands in Brexit negotiations by ruling out the possibility of a no-deal exit.
They believe Mr Johnson could “crush” Jeremy Corbyn in an election campaign which would pitch the Conservatives as the party delivering “the will of the people” against an obstructive Remainer parliament.
If the prime minister carries out his threat to withdraw the whip from rebel Tory MPs this week he would immediately wipe out his Commons majority of one, making a general election more likely.
On Sunday, Mr Johnson refused a request from Tory rebels for a meeting at Westminster today and Mr Gauke confirmed that party whips or other senior figures were doing nothing to try to win over the rebels.
Although Downing Street believes that the threat of deselection will stop some of the rebels, Mr Gauke said the prime minister’s tactics — including the suspension of parliament for five weeks — was hardening opinion.
“I would say there is a 95 per cent chance that if parliament does not act this week we will leave without a deal on October 31,” he said.
Mr Gauke said this week’s votes could be “very tight”, given that some Labour MPs from Leave areas are expected to abstain or vote with the government in the belief that it would help deliver Brexit.
If Mr Johnson was defeated in the Commons this week, some at Westminster believe he could try to trigger an election immediately, possibly before any anti-no deal legislation had received royal assent.
Tony Blair, former prime minister, will say on Monday that this would be an “elephant trap” for Labour, since Mr Johnson might then try to set an election date after October 31, taking Britain out of the EU before voters had their say.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, shadow business secretary, said Labour was aware of the trap and was determined to legislate to stop a no-deal exit before considering an election.
Another option being considered in Downing Street would be to hold a swift election in the hope that Mr Johnson could win a big majority for his Brexit strategy before a crucial EU Brussels summit on October 14.
Mr Johnson’s aides say they have no doubt that a Tory campaign led by many of the stalwarts of the Vote Leave 2016 EU referendum campaign and with a strong Brexit message would be successful.
To trigger an election Mr Johnson would need to dissolve parliament: that would require the support of two-thirds of MPs, so would need the backing of the Labour opposition.