Theresa May says she does not have enough support to win a vote on her EU withdrawal deal “as things stand”.
She said she would continue trying to get MPs to back it before putting it to the Commons for a third time this week.
The PM will also order Tory MPs to vote against a bid by a group of MPs, headed by Tory Sir Oliver Letwin, to hold votes on alternatives to her plan.
The government would give MPs time to hold such votes, but Mrs May said she was “sceptical” about the process.
And she said the government would not commit to delivering the outcome of the votes but would “engage constructively” with MPs.
“The votes could lead to an outcome that is un-negotiable with the EU,” she told MPs.
“No government could give a blank cheque to commit to an outcome without knowing what it is. So I cannot commit the government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by this House, but I do commit to engaging constructively with this process.”
DUP leader Arlene Foster told the prime minister her party had not changed its position and would not be backing the deal, in a telephone call after this morning’s cabinet meeting.
The prime minister said the “default outcome” remained leaving the EU without a deal.
“The alternative is to pursue a different form of Brexit or a second referendum,” she said.
“But the bottom line remains: if the House does not approve the Withdrawal Agreement this week and is not prepared to countenance leaving without a deal, we would have to seek a longer extension.”
That would mean holding European elections, she added, and would mean “we will not have been able to guarantee Brexit”.
She also confirmed that the government will seek to change the UK’s 29 March departure date through a piece of secondary legislation, which will make 11pm on 12 April the earliest Brexit date.
But she warned MPs that even if they rejected the change, it would still happen because it was contained in a piece of international law.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn confirmed that his party will back Sir Oliver Letwin’s attempt to secure “indicative votes” on Brexit, telling MPs: “It is time for Parliament to take control.”
EU no-deal preparation ‘completed’
Mrs May’s EU deal has been overwhelmingly rejected in the Commons twice.
She has said she would only bring it back for a third Commons vote if there was “sufficient support” for it – and she spent the weekend trying to persuade Brexiteer Tories to get behind it.
But many are thought likely to take their lead from the DUP, which has led objections to the Irish backstop clause.
Meanwhile, the EU has said all its preparation for an “increasingly likely” no-deal scenario on 12 April has been completed.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn met the prime minister for over an hour earlier, and had what Labour described as a “frank and comprehensive exchange of views” on Brexit.
Mr Corbyn told the PM there was no basis for holding a third vote on her deal.
Mrs May was understood to have suggested the government would not be bound by the so-called indicative votes being planned by MPs.
MPs are later expected to back a plan to carve out parliamentary time for a series of indicative votes on alternatives to Mrs May’s deal.
As many as six other options, in addition to Mrs May’s deal, could be put to votes to see which are most popular.
The indicative votes are a process for MPs to indicate which version of Brexit they might like if they don’t fancy the prime minister’s deal.
But there’s a clash in government over whether or not they should go into this process at all.
Parliament is going to do this anyway and the government has given a commitment for MPs to be able to have their say on a series of different ideas.
To be clear, it would not bind the government – even if there is one option that gets a clear preference from Parliament.
It would still have to get through the cabinet and it would still have to be workable for the Tory party.
That could then mean if Parliament puts down a marker to have a softer Brexit, Theresa May is stuck with the same problem she’s had all along: if she moves to something softer she might implode the Tory party.
Quite openly now, people in government are talking about something more dramatic as a way out.
Cryptically they call that a “democratic event”. What would we call that? An election.
What’s happening this week?
Monday: MPs will debate the Brexit next steps and a number of amendments – possible alternatives – to the government plan will be put to a vote. The most important of these is the indicative votes plan.
Tuesday: Theresa May could bring her withdrawal deal back for the so-called third meaningful vote. But the government says it won’t do that unless it’s sure it has enough support to win.
Wednesday: This is when indicative votes would be held – we don’t know yet whether MPs will be free to vote how they want or be directed along party lines. The chances of any genuine cross-party consensus being achieved are not high.
Thursday: A second possible opportunity for meaningful vote three. The prime minister may hope that Brexiteers will finally decide to throw their weight behind her deal because indicative votes have shown that otherwise the UK could be heading for the sort of softer Brexit they would hate.
Friday: This is still written into law as the day the UK leaves the EU, but the PM is attempting to change that through a piece of secondary legislation. If she succeeds, the earliest Brexit will happen is 11pm on 12 April.
On Sunday, amid reports of a plot to replace Mrs May with a caretaker prime minister, two cabinet ministers touted as potential successors said they fully backed the PM.
As senior figures dismissed talk of a “coup”, Mrs May summoned leading opponents of her deal to Chequers, her country retreat, to assess whether there was enough support for it to bring it back to the Commons this week.
But after lengthy talks with prominent Brexiteers – including Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan Smith – there was little sign of an immediate breakthrough.
Government vs Parliament
In normal times, the government runs the country and Parliament – comprising all the MPs and Lords who are not members of the government – is there to monitor and scrutinise the way they are running things.
The government cannot make new laws or raise taxes without Parliament’s agreement. And Parliament can challenge or block many of the decisions made by government ministers.
But ultimately it is the elected government that calls the shots – partly because it controls what gets debated in the Commons.
A group of MPs is now bidding to take over the Commons timetable on one day this week, so it can hold votes on alternatives to the government’s Brexit plans.
The government does not have to abide by the outcome of these votes, but it is trying to work with the MPs to avoid a showdown that could further undermine its already weakened authority.