The options for Brexit “are narrowing”, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said, after MPs voted to seize control of the parliamentary timetable.
The PM was dealt a fresh blow as the government was defeated by 27 votes on Monday, on a plan designed to find out the kind of deal MPs would support.
Thirty Conservative MPs rebelled, including three ministers.
Mr Hancock said the government would listen to MPs but “can’t pre-commit to following whatever they vote for”.
He told Radio 4’s Today programme that the Commons had rejected no deal and a second referendum, and urged MPs to back the PM’s Brexit deal.
Richard Harrington, Alistair Burt and Steve Brine resigned to join the rebels, with Mr Harrington accusing the government of “playing roulette with the lives and livelihoods” of Britons.
On Monday night, MPs voted in favour of Conservative backbencher Sir Oliver Letwin’s cross-party amendment, which will allow MPs to put forward motions relating to Brexit – most likely a series of so-called indicative votes.
Because of this, MPs will be able to vote on a number of options on Wednesday – likely to include a “softer Brexit”, a customs union with the EU and another referendum – designed to test the will of Parliament to see what, if anything, commands a majority.
The prime minister said she was “sceptical” about the process – as it was not guaranteed to produce a majority for any one course of action – and she would not commit the government to abiding by the result.
“The votes could lead to an outcome that is un-negotiable with the EU,” she told MPs.
Mr Hancock told Today: “In the previous votes there have been a multitude of potential different options – the sorts of options, like a second referendum, which I think would be a bad idea, that’s been rejected.
“The idea of having a no deal…the Commons is absolutely clear it won’t allow and will legislate against it if necessary.
“That means that the options are narrowing.”
He added: “So therefore those who want us to leave and who have previously been voting against the deal because they would prefer a no deal…the best way now to deliver on Brexit is to vote for the prime minister’s deal.”
When asked if the prime minister will abide by the indicative votes, Mr Hancock said: “Clearly, it’s incumbent on the government to listen to what the Commons says.
“But we can’t pre-commit to following whatever they vote for, because they might vote for something that is completely impractical.”
What’s happening this week?
Tuesday: Theresa May has a meeting of her cabinet. Tuesday had been considered as a possible day for the so-called third meaningful vote on Mrs May’s withdrawal deal. But, on Monday, the PM said the deal did not have enough support to get through the Commons “as things stand”.
Wednesday: This is when indicative votes would be held – we don’t know yet whether MPs will be free to vote how they want or be directed along party lines.
Thursday: A possible opportunity for meaningful vote three. The prime minister may hope that Brexiteers will finally decide to throw their weight behind her deal.
Friday: This is written into law as the day the UK leaves the EU, although the PM has said she will pass legislation this week to remove it. The earliest Brexit is likely to happen is now 12 April.
Parliament is also expected to pass a law this week postponing the Brexit date from 29 March.
A Department for Exiting the EU spokesman said that when considering Brexit options, MPs should take account of how long negotiating them would take and whether this would require a longer delay and the UK having to take part in European Parliamentary elections.
Those elections are taking place between 23 and 26 May. Both the British government and European Commission believe that if the UK has not exited the EU by the end of May it will be legally required to hold elections.
MPs involved in the bid on Monday night say if there is a majority for a plan that’s not the prime minister’s deal then there would be “uproar” if Theresa May tried to ignore it.
It is possible, of course, that Brexiteers who have been resisting the prime minister’s deal so far take fright at Parliament having more control of the process, and are more likely to come in line.
That’s because, generally, the make-up of MPs are more likely to back a softer deal than the one on offer.
So faced with the choice of Theresa May’s compromise this week, or a much longer wrangle to a closer relationship with the EU than the prime minister has negotiated, it is not impossible that the numbers will move in her favour.