At least 50 Conservative MPs would revolt against a general election manifesto that pledged to pursue a no-deal Brexit, according to two members of the government.
Scores of Tory MPs oppose the idea and some are considering running on a softer individual Brexit platform or even standing aside as a Conservative candidate.
One minister predicted that “at least 50 colleagues could not back no-deal, including several in the cabinet”. Another said: “So much depends on the language but for me there has to be at least a nod to getting a deal.”
Those MPs who would find a manifesto containing a purely no-deal Brexit policy problematic to support include culture secretary Nicky Morgan, justice secretary Robert Buckland and Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith.
Damian Green, leader of the One Nation caucus of approximately 60 moderate Tory MPs, is due to lead a delegation to meet Boris Johnson on Wednesday. They are expected to tell the prime mister they cannot support a manifesto based on pursuing a no deal Brexit.
The disquiet in the Tory ranks comes as talks with the EU appear on the verge of collapse. Without a new Brexit deal, Mr Johnson is expected reluctantly to seek a delay to Brexit, precipitating a general election.
The notion that the Tories could run on an exclusively no-deal platform was raised by a Downing Street official who told The Spectator magazine that if Mr Johnson’s efforts to strike a new deal failed, they would have to back the hardest of Brexits in order to win over voters who might otherwise back Nigel Farage’s Brexit party.
“To marginalise the Brexit party, we will have to fight the election on the basis of ‘no more delays, get Brexit done immediately’,” the official said. “We will focus on winning the election on a manifesto of immediately revoking the entire EU legal order without further talks, and then we will leave.”
One member of Mr Johnson’s government told the Financial Times: “I would write in my own election address that I will back a deal to leave the EU. I’m pretty sure that dozens more will do the same.”
The MP said it would be “lunacy” to endorse the idea of no-deal as a “desired outcome”, adding: “You would have to be without an understanding of basic British electoral politics to see how that could lose you many votes in a general election once Labour started pointing out all the obvious problems.”
One senior Tory MP said: “There’s simply no way I am standing on a manifesto promoting no-deal. It would be madness. Tonnes of colleagues feel the same way. I’d have to run on my own manifesto or not stand at all. The idea we can out-Brexit the Brexit party is ludicrous.”
Officials working on election planning believe that if an election was held after another Brexit delay, the party may have no choice but to back no-deal in order to counter the threat of the Brexit party. Strategists believe that Mr Farage’s party would receive a bounce of at least five points if Mr Johnson failed to take the UK out of the EU on October 31.
Mr Farage has said he would stand candidates down at an election only if Mr Johnson explicitly backed a no-deal exit. His party has otherwise pledged to run in all 650 parliamentary constituencies, even if it risks splitting the pro-Brexit vote and hands victory to Labour or Liberal Democrat candidates.
Some Tories, however, do not believe Mr Johnson would agree to an exclusive no-deal manifesto. “Boris wouldn’t go down that route as it would split the party,” said one MP. Another Johnson ally predicted the manifesto would “ultimately look like our 2017 pledge: we’ll back a deal but would be happy to go for no-deal if the EU don’t give way”.
One Tory strategist said Mr Johnson might end up splitting the difference. “They have to include no-deal, but to rule out a deal won’t cut it either with around 50 MPs. Making it a no-deal election versus Corbyn will produce some mad outcomes.”