Prisons minister Rory Stewart was sent out on the airwaves after a letter from the Prime Minister to Jeremy Corbyn left the question dangling over whether she might shift towards supporting a customs union.
She offered fresh talks to seek a cross-party agreement on Brexit and insisted that her proposals met many of his demands over a customs union.
The letter sparked speculation at Westminster that the Prime Minister was paving the way to shift towards a customs union if she fails to win over Tory right-wingers and the Democratic Unionist Party to support her Brexit blueprint.
However, pressed on why the letter had not explicitly rejected a customs union, Mr Stewart told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The Prime Minister has ruled that out repeatedly. In this letter again, she makes it very clear that she is not looking at a customs union model because the problem with a customs union model is that the EU would in effect negotiate new customs agreements which the UK would follow.”
He also left open that the “meaningful vote” on Mrs May’s Brexit plans may be delayed into March, even though this would cause growing problems for businesses, saying the timing was dependent on her being able to get a parliamentary majority.
“I agree that the longer this goes on the more risky it gets,” he admitted.
Downing Street is seeking to woo Labour MPs with offers of more guarantees on workers’ rights and more funding for deprived communities.
However, Tory rebel leader Dominic Grieve argued that all the Brexit plans would condemn the UK to a “second-rate future”, compared with current arrangements, and warned MPs against an “abdication of our responsibility” to ensure this did not happen.
Writing in the Evening Standard, the former attorney general criticised the deal struck between Mrs May and Brussels, arguing: “We are leaving into a void, bound to every EU rule for the years of ‘transition’ and with no certain destination as to our future trading relationship.”
Backing a second referendum, he added: “Insisting that all will somehow be well if Brexit goes through now, rather than insisting on a pause and a measured reconsideration, is an abdication of our responsibility.”
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay was set to hold talks in Brussels this evening with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson signalled he could back Mrs May’s deal if a time limit or unilateral exit mechanism for the UK on the backstop was written into the Withdrawal Agreement. However, Brussels has so far refused to reopen the “divorce” deal, and Mr Johnson dismissed the idea of a codicil attached to it, saying: “I don’t think that would be good enough”.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox today signed a transitional trade agreement with Switzerland, but such deals with many other countries are not expected to be agreed before March 29.
Labour will use a vote expected on Thursday to attempt to force the Prime Minister to bring her deal back for a showdown by February 26, to prevent her “running down the clock” before Brexit. But the Prime Minister is expected to offer MPs a further chance to vote on non-binding amendments which could influence her Brexit strategy by February 27.