Former British prime minister John Major, whose own premiership was marked by Conservative European Union rebellions, has called for MPs to decide on whether the UK should have a second Brexit referendum.
MPs should decide on Brexit “on the basis of their own conscience” – even if there was not a free vote on the deal, said Mr Major, in one of his most outspoken interviews.
Asked if he was now guilty of undermining prime minister Theresa May, Mr Major said: "I have been in the party a good deal longer than most people . . . a good deal longer than most of the people who are really undermining the prime minister today by telling her what she must negotiate or they will withdraw their support in parliament.
“I have absolutely no intention of quitting the party that I have been in since I was 16 and which I wish to see follow policies that are a bit different from some of those they are following now.
“The advice I have given today is good advice, it is not an intention to undermine the prime minister,” said Mr Major, the most senior Conservative yet to attack what he called the British government’s “unrealistic” Brexit strategy.
MPs have a duty to consider the “well-being of the people”, as well as the will of the people in the first referendum.
“This must be a decisive vote, in which parliament can accept or reject the final outcome; or send the negotiators back to seek improvements; or order a referendum,” he was due to say according to an advance copy of the speech.
“That is what parliamentary sovereignty means.”
“No one can truly know what ‘the will of the people’ may then be. So, let parliament decide. Or put the issue back to the people,” he said.
At the same time as calling for the country to have a final say on Brexit if the terms negotiated by the government were unacceptable to MPs, Mr Major issued scathing criticism of the government’s strategy, which he described as lacking credibility.
"Every one of the Brexit promises is – to quote Henry Fielding – 'a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine to which (there is) but one objection: namely, that it is not true,'" he said.
“I know of no precedent for any government enacting a policy that will make both our country and our people poorer. Once that is apparent, the government must change course.”
Mr Major, who helped build the groundwork for peace in Northern Ireland, also hit out at recent calls to ignore the dangers of restoring border control.
“We need a policy to protect the Good Friday agreement – and we need one urgently,” he said. “And it is our responsibility to find one – not the European Union.”
The former prime minister withheld his strongest criticism for hardline Brexiteers taking the Tory party away from its pro-business roots.
“Over many years, the Conservative party has understood the concerns of business. Not over Brexit, it seems,” he says. “This is not only grand folly. It’s also bad politics. Our self-imposed ‘red lines’ have boxed the government into a corner.
“They are so tilted to ultra-Brexit opinion, even the cabinet cannot agree them – and a majority in both houses of parliament oppose them. If maintained in full, it will be impossible to reach a favourable trade outcome.”
Warning that 125,000 jobs with Japanese companies could be lost in the UK, he said “none of it has yet been properly explained to the British people”.
“No one voted for higher prices and poorer public services, but that is what they may get,” said Mr Major.
“The emerging evidence suggests Brexit will hurt most those who have least . . . This isn’t ‘Project Fear’ revisited, it is ‘Project Know Your History’.”
He delivered a veiled attack on fellow former Tory prime minister David Cameron, who recently suggested in Davos that Brexit may not be a total disaster.
“In recent weeks, the idea has gained ground that Brexit won’t be too bad; that we will all get through it; that we’re doing better than expected – and all will be well,” said Mr Major.
"Of course we will get through it: life as we know it won't come to an end. We are too resourceful and talented a nation for that. But our nation is owed a frank assessment of what leaving Europe may mean – for now and the future." – PA