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PM holding Chequers crisis talks amid 'cabinet coup'

Sky News logo Sky News 24/03/2019 Greg Heffer, political reporter

Theresa May wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: Theresa May attended church on Sunday amid reports she could be ousted from Number 10 © PA Theresa May attended church on Sunday amid reports she could be ousted from Number 10

Theresa May is holding crisis talks with government ministers and senior Conservative MPs amid a flurry of reports she could be forced from Downing Street.

The prime minister has gathered the group at her Chequers country retreat this afternoon as she battles to deal with the ongoing Brexit crisis and keep her grip on power.

She has been joined by her de facto deputy David Lidington, Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, chief whip Julian Lewis, and Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis.

Tory Brexiteers are being represented by Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees-Mogg, while Mrs May's long-time ally Damian Green has also travelled to the Buckinghamshire residence.

The prime minister's first Brexit secretary, David Davis, was also understood to be a possible attendee.

Both Mr Lidington and Mr Gove have been named as possible replacements for Mrs May, but Chancellor Philip Hammond earlier warned Tory MPs against ousting the prime minister, despite growing anger at her handling of Brexit.

Mr Hammond branded conversations about replacing the prime minister as "self-indulgent", with the UK having less than three weeks to come up with a Brexit solution or face leaving the bloc without a divorce deal.

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The Chancellor told Sky News' Sophy Ridge on Sunday show: "To be talking about changing the players on the board frankly is self-indulgent at this time."

He added: "Changing prime minister wouldn't help us, changing the party in government wouldn't help us.

"We've got to address the question of what type of Brexit is acceptable to parliament, what type of way forward parliament can agree on so that we can avoid what would be an economic catastrophe of a no-deal exit and also what would be a very big challenge to confidence in our political system if we didn't exit at all."

Mrs May has seen her Brexit deal defeated twice by MPs, forcing her to delay the UK's exit from the EU beyond 29 March.

The prime minister has indicated she may not bring her deal back to parliament for a third vote this week if there is still not enough support for it.

Without approval for Mrs May's deal, Mr Hammond said the House of Commons would get so-called "indicative" votes on alternative Brexit outcomes this week "one way or another", as he failed to rule out a second EU referendum.

Among seven different options, the chancellor would only decline supporting a no-deal Brexit or cancelling Brexit completely.

On the prospect of a fresh public vote, Mr Hammond said: "I'm not sure there's a majority in parliament in support of a second referendum but it's a perfectly coherent proposition.

"Many people will be strongly opposed to it, but it's a coherent proposition and it deserves to be considered along with the other proposals."

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The Chancellor said it had yet to be decided whether Tory MPs would be ordered to vote for or against any of the different options, or whether they could be granted a series of free votes. Despite the speculation over Mrs May's future and his own, Cabinet Office minister Mr Lidington ruled out stepping into the top job, as he repeated his plea for MPs to finally support the Brexit deal.

He said: "I don't think I have any wish to take over from the PM, who is doing a fantastic job.

"There's one thing that working closely with the prime minister does, is cure you completely of any lingering shred of ambition to want to do that task.

"I have absolute admiration for the way she's going about it."

Mr Gove also dismissed suggestions he could replace Mrs May as he gave his backing to the prime minister.

He said: "It's not the time to change the captain of the ship.

"What we need to do is chart the right course and the prime minister has charted that right course by making sure we have a deal that honours the referendum mandate and which also allows us to leave in a way which means we can strengthen our economy and also take advantage of life outside the EU."

Another Chequers attendee, former Tory leader Mr Duncan Smith, claimed replacing the prime minister at this stage of Brexit would see the UK becoming a "laughing stock around the world".

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He lashed out at cabinet ministers briefing against the prime minister and told them to apologise and "shut up" or face being sacked.

However, his support for Mrs May was far from wholehearted, as he branded her recent request for a Brexit delay "as close to a national humiliation as I've seen".

Meanwhlile, Mr Barclay admitted the country is in "crisis", due to a plan by MPs to seize control of the Brexit process from the government this week.

The Brexit secretary told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show that, if MPs recommended a Brexit outcome - through indicative votes - that was counter to the Conservative Party manifesto, then "the risk of a general election increases".

Labour's shadow cabinet office minister Jon Trickett claimed Mr Hammond had signalled Mrs May's Brexit deal is "dead".

"This is a government in which the country can have no confidence as the chancellor confirmed we are on the edge of a catastrophe," he told Sky's Sophy Ridge on Sunday.

But he failed to say whether Labour would table another motion of no confidence in the government this week.

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Amid the turmoil at Westminster, Adam Marshall, the director general of the British Chamber of Commerce, told Sky News there is "a huge amount of frustration and anger out there in our business communities".

He added: "People have been waiting for three years for an outcome to this whole process and what they see is continued political tactics, continued

positioning and no clear route forward."

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