Boris Johnson is desperately trying to fight off a Tory revolt ahead of a Commons fight over his Brexit plans.
The Prime Minister dramatically raised the stakes by signalling he will ask for a snap general election if rebel Tories and opposition MPs back measures aimed at delaying Brexit to prevent the UK crashing out of the European Union without a deal.
In a sign of the bitter divisions within the Conservative ranks, former chancellor Philip Hammond accused Downing Street of “rank hypocrisy” and warned of the “fight of a lifetime” if officials attempt to prevent him from standing at the next general election as a Conservative candidate.
Dominic Grieve, who served as attorney general in David Cameron’s government, said threats to withdraw the whip from any Tories voting against the Government demonstrated Mr Johnson’s “ruthlessness” in power.
Ex-Cabinet minister Justine Greening said she would not stand as a Tory candidate at the next election, telling the PA news agency that a no-deal Brexit was “the most profoundly un-Conservative policy you could possibly have”.
She said her fears that the Conservative Party was morphing into Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party had “come to pass” and accused the current leadership of “narrowing down” the party’s appeal.
Ms Greening, Mr Hammond and Mr Grieve all confirmed they would join opposition MPs in voting for legislation designed to delay Britain’s exit from the EU if no agreement can be struck with the European Union before October 31.
With the Tory-DUP majority standing at just one and rebels uniting behind the draft law, which was revealed by Labour MP Hilary Benn on Monday, Mr Johnson could be facing defeat in the Commons.
On Monday, he sought to scare off a rebellion by indicating he would push for a snap general election if MPs succeed in their bid to seize control of parliamentary proceedings.
But Mr Hammond, who was reselected as Tory candidate for Runnymede & Weybridge on Monday night, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I will not support a proposal to dissolve Parliament for an election until this Bill has completed its passage through Parliament.”
The former cabinet member added: “A lot of my colleagues have come under immense pressure. Some have responded to that by saying ‘enough, I’m going’. That is not going to be my approach. This is my party. I have been a member of this party for 45 years.”
If true, this would be staggeringly hypocritical: 8 members of the current cabinet have defied the party whip this year.— Philip Hammond (@PhilipHammondUK) August 31, 2019
I want to honour our 2017 manifesto which promised a âsmooth and orderlyâ exit and a âdeep and special partnershipâ with the EU.
Not an undemocratic No Deal. https://t.co/045od2lsvD
In what was seen as a swipe at the Prime Minister’s controversial right-hand man, Dominic Cummings, he said: “I am going to defend my party against incomers, entryists, who are trying to turn it from a broad church to a narrow faction.”
The Prime Minister held a last-ditch meeting with potential rebels including former cabinet ministers Mr Hammond, David Gauke and Greg Clark on Tuesday morning.
A source close to the group said Mr Johnson “gave an unconvincing explanation” of how a deal could get through in the time allowed and he could not provide a “reasonable answer” on why the Government had not yet provided the EU with alternatives to the Irish backstop.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn gathered Westminster opposition leaders for talks in his parliamentary office to discuss tactics.
One of the key issues is whether Labour would back Mr Johnson’s call for an early election, with October 14 targeted as a potential date by Downing Street.
“We want a general election, as do all the other parties,” Mr Corbyn said, but he added that “the priority is to prevent a no-deal exit from the EU” on October 31.
Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act a two-thirds majority is required for an early election and critics have claimed Mr Johnson could seek to simply delay the date of the poll until after Brexit.
But Downing Street insisted that was wrong and there was no discretion over timing once Parliament has been dissolved.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman confirmed that if there was to be an election it would be held before the European Council summit of EU leaders on October 17.
He said: “The Prime Minister does not want to hold an election. If, by destroying his negotiating position, MPs force an election, then that would take place before the October European Council.”
The spokesman warned that the rebel legislation was a “blueprint for legislative purgatory” which would cost around £1 billion a month for an extension to the Brexit process that was “very clearly in Brussels’ interests, not in the British interest”.
He continued: “The Prime Minister’s mood is determined. He wants to get on with delivering on the result of the referendum and the UK leaving the EU on October 31, ideally with a deal.
“We are opposed to the Bill which is being brought forward because it is about crippling negotiations and chopping the legs out from under the UK position, and making any further negotiation impossible.”
Speaking in Downing Street on Monday night the Prime Minister made clear “there are no circumstances in which I will ask Brussels to delay” Brexit beyond October 31.
Mr Johnson could take the unenviable title of shortest-serving British prime minister should he lose a snap election next month, falling short of George Canning’s 119-day stint in 1827.