The government should have made clear after the 2017 election that it would “inevitably” have to accept a closer relationship with the EU after Brexit, the Tory chief whip has said.
In a BBC documentary, Julian Smith – who manages party discipline – is also critical of the cabinet’s behaviour.
The attack comes as the cabinet is split over whether to move to a softer deal that could mean a customs union.
MPs will hold further votes later on Brexit options to resolve the deadlock.
A customs union with the EU is thought to be the most popular of the ideas under consideration.
Other options include leaving the EU without a deal on 12 April, a referendum to rule out no deal and a confirmatory referendum on Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal.
In interviews for The Brexit Storm: Laura Kuenssberg’s Inside Story, Mr Smith accused ministers of trying to undermine the prime minister.
He said he witnessed ministers “sitting around the cabinet table… trying to destabilise her [Mrs May]” and described their behaviour as the “worst example of ill-discipline in cabinet in British political history”.
Mr Smith said that when it failed to get a majority in the 2017 election, “the government as a whole probably should have just been clearer on the consequences of that”.
The parliamentary arithmetic after the poll, he added, “would mean that this would be inevitably a kind of softer type of Brexit”.
But Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s not clear to me that going softer is the way to command support.
“If you look at the parliamentary arithmetic now, it’s not clear that something like a customs union actually commands support.”
She said MPs, so far, had not been in favour of a customs union and the “answer lies in modifications to the prime minister’s deal”.
Ms Truss added: “It is an incredibly testing time, it’s a time when we have got a minority government and there are differences of opinions.”
And Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG) of Tory MPs, told LBC Radio that he was “very concerned” Mrs May could go for a “customs union tacked on to her deal”.
Julian Smith has told the BBC that the government ought to have admitted after the election that it would inevitably have to move to a softer Brexit, saying ministers should have been clearer about the consequences of losing their majority then.
But here’s the tricky thing – the prime minister has never acknowledged publicly that she might have to soften up her deal. And many Conservatives, including some in cabinet, believe it would be unacceptable to do so.
Mr Smith, and others in government, suggest the prime minister might still put her deal back in front of MPs, perhaps as early as this week. Whips are, hypothetically, the keepers of secrets inside government. But in these turbulent times, few conventions still apply.
A customs union would allow businesses to move goods around the EU without tariffs – taxes on importing goods – but membership would bar the UK from striking independent trade deals after Brexit.
The prime minister has until 12 April to seek a longer extension to the Article 50 process if the UK is to avoid leaving without a deal.
Parliament has rejected the withdrawal agreement the UK has negotiated – covering the UK’s “divorce bill”, guarantees on citizens’ rights and contingency plans for the Irish border known as the backstop – with the EU three times.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said patience is running out with the UK, telling Italy’s Rai TV network that the EU wanted to see MPs reach an agreement in the coming days.
Who is the chief whip?
The chief whip, whose official title is Parliamentary secretary to the Treasury, is appointed by – and answers to – the prime minister.
Julian Smith, the MP for Skipton and Ripon, was appointed chief whip by Theresa May in November 2017. He attends cabinet.
His role is to maintain party discipline and attempt to ensure that members of the party vote with the government in important debates.
Along with the other party whips, he looks after the day-to-day management of the government’s business in Parliament.
It is customary for both the government and the opposition chief whips not to take part in Parliamentary debates.
In an attempt to force the government’s hand, MPs will hold their second non-binding vote later on a series of options to see if any of them can command a majority in Parliament.
None of MPs’ eight proposed options secured a majority in the first set of indicative votes on 27 March, but those that received the greatest support were a customs union with the EU and a referendum on any deal.
Mrs May’s deal is opposed by parties including Northern Ireland’s DUP – which the government relies upon for support – as well as a group of her own MPs.
The DUP has said it will not vote for the deal as it believes it could threaten Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.
The party’s Brexit spokesman, MP Sammy Wilson, said it would not back it even if Mrs May brings it for a vote in the Commons “1,000 times”.
- Monday, 1 April: MPs hold another set of votes on Brexit options to see if they can agree on a way forward
- Wednesday, 3 April: Potentially another round of so-called “indicative votes”
- Wednesday, 10 April: Emergency summit of EU leaders to consider any UK request for further extension
- Friday, 12 April: Brexit day, if UK does not seek/EU does not grant further delay
- 23-26 May: European Parliamentary elections
Later on Monday, MPs will also debate three Brexit petitions launched by members of the public.
One calling for the Article 50 notification to be revoked and Brexit to be cancelled reached six million signatures on Sunday.
Also being discussed is a rival petition demanding a new referendum, which has amassed 180,000 signatures, and another that calls on MPs to “honour the referendum result”, which has been signed more than 170,000 times.
Speaking on Sunday, Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson said there was an “emerging consensus” among Labour MPs that any deal had to be backed with another referendum.
He said: “Whatever the deal looks like – and we understand there have to be compromises – if it’s underpinned by a People’s Vote, that is the way we can bring the country back together.”
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry also said “it looks like the time may come” for Labour to attempt another no confidence vote in the government.
If passed, this could pave the way for a general election.
The Brexit Storm: Laura Kuenssberg’s Inside Story will be broadcast on Monday 1 April at 21:00 BST on BBC2