There is a “plausible argument” for the public to be asked to vote again on Brexit if MPs remain deadlocked, a Cabinet minister has said.
Amber Rudd acknowledged her comments would “distress” some of her Tory colleagues and stressed she was fully committed to Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
But Commons leader Andrea Leadsom hit back at Rudd, saying a second referendum would be “unacceptable”.
The work and pensions secretary insisted she did not want a referendum and called for MPs across the Commons to reach a consensus as a way of preventing a no-deal Brexit if May’s Withdrawal Agreement is thrown out in January’s parliamentary showdown.
But her intervention was welcomed as a “massive moment” by campaigners calling for a so-called People’s Vote, with Tory former minister Anna Soubry praising Ms Rudd as “brave and principled”.
Rudd backed the idea of an indicative vote to find which Brexit options MPs would be prepared to support if the prime minister’s deal is rejected.
She told ITV’s Peston: “I don’t want a people’s vote, or a referendum in general, but if Parliament absolutely failed to reach a consensus I could see there would be a plausible argument for it.”
She added: “Parliament has to reach a majority on how it’s going to leave the European Union.
“If it fails to do so, then I can see the argument for taking it back to the people again, much as it would distress many of my colleagues.”
Rudd said an indicative vote would “flush out” MPs by forcing them to show their support for one option or another, and encourage those whose favoured ideas are rejected to reach a compromise.
“We are going to have to find a way, as MPs, of working together to find a consensus, of agreeing on how to stop no-deal taking place,” she said.
But Leadsom told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “It’s not Government policy.
“I myself think it would undermine the biggest democratic exercise ever, where we had a clear majority to leave the European Union.
“To have a second referendum would unfortunately be going back to people and telling them they have got it wrong and they needed to try again.
“I think it would be unacceptable.”
Holding a second referendum may be “the only option available” to break the Parliamentary deadlock, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said.
She reiterated Labour’s preference for a general election, telling Today that Labour “may be able to win one when we come back and the issue of her deal comes up once again with a meaningful vote”.
But she added that if they could not force an election “nothing is off the table, including a second referendum”.
She added: “It may be that that is the only option available. The leadership sticks by the policy and the policy is we have not taken a second referendum off the table.”
Pushed on the scale of Labour frontbench support for a new referendum, she added: “In the heart of the Labour Party is a very serious will to try and head off either Theresa May’s appalling deal or, even worse, no deal.
“We will do whatever is necessary.”
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran MP, a champion of the anti-Brexit campaign group Best for Britain said that collective Cabinet responsibility was “crumbling before our very eyes”. She said: “In normal circumstances cabinet ministers at least make an effort to say the same thing in public. Now, Andrea Leadsom is making the case for the unicorn Brexit where in ‘Leadsom world’ a no deal Brexit won’t be the economic Armageddon that everyone else thinks, but a land of milk and honey. “With Theresa May’s bad Brexit deal widely expected to be defeated in January, ministerial lobbying as to what should happen next, which in the past used to take place in private, around the Caibnet table or in private letters is now happening in public, in the full glare of a TV studio. “All this bickering shows why we need to throw this back to the people and give them the final say in the Brexit process.”