Philip Hammond has said MPs can prevent Boris Johnson taking the UK out of the EU without a deal on 31 October, calling no deal a “betrayal of the referendum” and suggesting advisers in Downing Street have no intention of negotiating a new deal.
Hammond expressed scepticism about the prospect of a national unity government taking over after a no-confidence vote but said if parliament could not agree on a way to honour the referendum result, a referendum or general election was inevitable.
Any attempt to bypass parliament would provoke “a constitutional crisis”, the former chancellor told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Speaking after a letter from more than 20 Conservative MPs warning Johnson not to pursue no deal was leaked, Hammond said the British people were never offered the prospect of no deal at the referendum.
“To set the bar for negotiations so high that we inevitably leave without a deal would be a betrayal. The prime minister said he would get a deal and we want to see him deliver that deal,” Hammond said.
“Pivoting to say the backstop has to go in its entirety, a huge chunk of the withdrawal agreement just scrapped, is effectively a wrecking tactic. The people behind this know that means there will be no deal.”
Hammond said Johnson had privately promised him that he wanted to get a deal with the EU but said there were people “pulling the strings in Downing Street … whose agenda is different.”
The letter from Hammond which was leaked to the Sun was also signed by former cabinet ministers including David Gauke, Greg Clark and Rory Stewart. It said Johnson now needed to “operationalise that commitment” to get a deal and then he would have the support of the majority of his Conservative colleagues.
Hammond said he was certain parliament would find a legislative way to block the UK’s exit from the EU without a deal, even if Downing Street claimed that would be impossible. The former chancellor has met a number of leading figures opposed to no deal, including the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer.
“I’m very confident that the means exist for parliament to make its voice heard and to pass legislation that gives effect to the clear view of parliament,” he said.
“It’s very clear to me, and the Speaker of the House of Commons has also been very clear, that if a majority of MPs clearly want to go down a certain route, a means will be delivered to allow that to happen.”
The Speaker, John Bercow, told an event in Edinburgh on Wednesday night that MPs did have the ability to stop a no-deal Brexit and said he would “fight with every breath in my body” to stop the prime minister from proroguing parliament to force through no deal without the consent of MPs.
Hammond said that to prorogue parliament or to attempt to hold an election after 31 October to prevent MPs expressing their will on no deal “would provoke a constitutional crisis”.
Hammond said an election or a second Brexit referendum would become inevitable if the impasse continued. “If we can’t resolve this issue in parliament it will have to be resolved by some form of democratic process, and there are frankly two choices: a general election or a referendum,” he said.
However, he suggested he would not support moves to vote down the government and install a unity cabinet that would negotiate an extension with the EU – a move which has been privately proposed by some other rebel Conservative and opposition MPs.
“I don’t agree with that at all, I don’t think that’s the answer. We have a Conservative government under Boris Johnson,” he said. “I want to see government be a success not just in delivering Brexit but across the whole spectrum of domestic and foreign policy. But I do want it to listen to what parliament is saying.”
The former chancellor also hit out at overnight briefings from Downing Street sources that he had blocked preparations for a no-deal exit and weakened the UK’s negotiating position.
“We were already doing no-deal preparations and, although Downing Street repeatedly suggests that was not done, we spent £4.2bn. The Bank of England’s own analysis in June showed their estimate of damage to our economy had significantly reduced as a result of the no-deal preparation that we had carried out,” he said.