Theresa May’s aides have secretly begun contingency planning for a snap election in November to save the Brexit talks and her job after EU leaders rebuffed the prime minister’s Chequers plan.
Two senior members of May’s Downing Street political operation responded to her summit humiliation in Salzburg last week by “war-gaming” an autumn vote to win public backing for a new plan.
In a telephone conversation on Thursday evening one of them said to another Tory strategist: “What are you doing in November — because I think we are going to need an election.”
With May’s position in peril, The Sunday Times can also reveal that another member of her inner circle has told cabinet ministers she is likely to stand down next summer — a move designed to stop them resigning now to replace her.
The plans to shore up May’s position were revealed as the prime minister is braced for a cabinet row over Britain’s post-Brexit immigration policy tomorrow
Sajid Javid, the home secretary, will outline plans to strip EU migrants of special status once freedom of movement comes to an end next spring. Instead there will be a level playing field for immigrants from around the world.
Philip Hammond, the chancellor, is expected to fight those plans, giving a presentation that will demand special status for EU migrants to boost the economy.
Party officials are concerned that he will suggest Britain should continue to allow something close to free movement, unleashing a new cabinet civil war.
May will come under pressure to shift her position tomorrow when David Davis and Boris Johnson, who resigned over the Chequers Brexit proposal, back an alternative plan drawn up by the Institute for Economic Affairs think tank.
A leaked copy reveals that it recommends a Canada-style deal using technology, trusted trader schemes and a separate Anglo-Irish trade treaty on goods to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the republic.
Stewart Jackson, Davis’s former chief of staff, last night warned May that she has 10 days to save her premiership, calling on her to adopt the plan or face a coup.
“We are giving the prime minister the opportunity to take the party with her and deliver what she promised the people in her Lancaster House speech and at the general election which was a comprehensive free trade deal,” he said.
“She needs to use her conference speech to show she can think imaginatively on Brexit, otherwise she will be facing a leadership challenge very soon.”
May last night urged Tories to keep “cool heads” and “hold their nerve”, turning her fire on Labour, where MPs and activists are demanding a second referendum.
“These negotiations were always bound to be toughest in the final straight,” she said.
“Many in Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP are trying to thwart Brexit at every step. Some are now openly advocating a second referendum and extending article 50 to delay Brexit, sending us right back to square one.
“Others are talking directly to the EU to undermine the UK’s negotiating position. This is the moment to put our country first.”
While May’s aides have not discussed an election with her since her Salzburg setback, one said it might be “the only way” to keep the government afloat.
The two aides suggested the prime minister would move from her Chequers plan to something closer to the Canada model, then run on a Eurosceptic ticket in the election in the hope of securing a working Commons majority. That would allow her to outvote the 15-20 Tory MPs pushing for a soft Brexit.
At least six cabinet ministers are considering whether to call on her to ditch Chequers and “pivot” to a Canada-style deal instead.
Sajid Javid, Michael Gove and Brexit secretary Dominic Raab prefer that approach but are supporting May to get a deal. Esther McVey, Andrea Leadsom and Penny Mordaunt are said by MPs to have discussed resignation, although Mordaunt’s and Leadsom’s aides last night denied they plan to quit. In a bid to keep the Brexiteers on board, one of May’s senior aides held out the prospect that she will make way for a new leader next year.
“They are telling ministers that Theresa is likely to announce her departure by next summer,” one senior Tory said.
“The idea is: back her now and then we will clear the way for a leadership contest after that. And the message to the Brexiteers is: if you want to sort out Brexit later you might get that opportunity once she’s gone.”
Hardline Brexiteers in the European Research Group , led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, say that unless she changes tack they will call on Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee, to tell her that her time as leader is up.
A Downing Street source said: “It is categorically not true that No 10 is planning for an election or has held any meetings to discuss one.”