Theresa May faces a potential Tory mutiny over Brexit as talks continued in Brussels to reach a deal ahead of a crunch summit.
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and the European Union’s Michel Barnier were holding talks on Sunday ahead of the meeting of EU leaders on Wednesday.
The talks come as former Brexit secretary David Davis urged a Cabinet revolt against the Prime Minister’s strategy.
Tory MP Nadine Dorries suggested that Mr Davis should be installed as interim leader, claiming that was the only way to secure the kind of free-trade deal Brexit demanded by Eurosceptics.
Allies of Mr Davis said he has been contacted by several Tory MPs urging him to run for the leadership.
The announcement of Mr Raab and Mr Barnier’s talks on Sunday fuelled speculation that a deal may be close – potentially leading to a flashpoint for Mrs May’s premiership.
“With several big issues still to resolve, including the Northern Ireland backstop, it was jointly agreed that face-to-face talks were necessary ahead of this week’s October European Council,” a Department for Exiting the European Union spokesman said.
Ambassadors from the remaining 27 EU states have also been invited to attend an update on the Brexit talks, according to reports from Brussels.
The issue of the Northern Irish backstop – a mechanism to avoid a hard border – is at the heart of the troubles facing Mrs May’s leadership.
The European Union’s version of the backstop, which would see just Northern Ireland remain aligned with Brussels’ rules, has been called unacceptable by Mrs May and is loathed by the DUP.
Mrs May’s counter-proposal is for a “temporary customs arrangement” for the whole UK, but Tory Brexiteers fear this becoming an open-ended position which would prevent free trade deals with countries around the world.
Cabinet minister Matt Hancock sought to play down speculation that some of his colleagues might quit over the Brexit plans, but was unable to say whether a fixed deadline for any customs arrangement would be written into a deal with Brussels.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “There are different ways that you can make sure that something is credibly time limited and that’s what I want to see.”
Tory vice chairman James Cleverly told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday that Cabinet ministers should use their position to influence Brexit policy rather than resign.
“They should use that position to put their ideas forward, I would suggest that’s a much more constructive and helpful way of influencing the direction of the negotiations with the EU,” he said.
Writing in the Sunday Times, Mr Davis, who quit in July over Brexit, said: “It is time for the Cabinet to exert their collective authority. This week the authority of our constitution is on the line.”
The newspaper said at least nine ministers want Mrs May to change course when the Cabinet meets on Tuesday.
Speculation about possible resignations has centred on Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt and Esther McVey, but the report also indicated that Scottish Secretary David Mundell and Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson could quit because of the sensitivity of the issue in relation to calls for Scottish independence.
Mrs May’s own position also appeared in jeopardy, with as many as 44 letters demanding a vote of no confidence reportedly submitted to the Conservative 1922 Committee – just four short of the number required to trigger a ballot.
Critics of the Prime Minister believe that the threshold could be passed by Wednesday depending on the nature of her approach to the Brexit talks.
Ms Dorries said that Mr Davis had always focused on changing the policy, rather than the Prime Minister.
But she added: “Getting May out and him becoming an interim leader may be the only way to deliver Brexit and FTA (a free-trade agreement).”
Mr Davis is understood to be prepared to run if there is a leadership contest.
The Northern Irish situation is a particular headache for Mrs May because her minority administration depends on the votes of the 10 DUP MPs.
According to a private email exchange between senior UK officials, seen by the Observer, DUP leader Arlene Foster has indicated her party was “ready for a no-deal scenario, which she now believed was the likeliest one”.
Mrs May’s hopes of getting a Brexit deal through Parliament could depend on the actions of Labour MPs, with former minister Caroline Flint telling Sky she would back a “reasonable” deal.
“I think if a reasonable deal is on the table the question for some of my Labour colleagues is ‘why wouldn’t you support a deal, why would you stand along (with) Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg who want us to crash out without a deal?”
But shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry told the BBC: “We said we wanted a meaningful vote and we can’t see why we should have, on the one hand Theresa May’s nonsense and on the other hand a no deal, because that’s what they’re threatening us with.
“If she comes back with something that’s just a fudge she’s cooked up with Brussels… we’re not voting for something that’s essentially a bridge to nowhere.”
Photo: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls