Angry Tory loyalists have turned on the party’s Brexiteers after Theresa May’s plans for leaving the EU suffered another humiliating Commons defeat.
Downing Street insisted the Prime Minister would continue with her negotiating strategy, with ministers dismissing Thursday’s vote as no more than a “hiccup”.
However there was fury among some Conservative MPs after a last-minute announcement by the pro-Brexit European Research Group it had taken a “collective decision” to abstain.
With some Remainers also failing to vote, and five Tory MPs voting with the opposition, the Government fell to a 303 to 258 vote defeat.
While some ministers insisted the result was largely symbolic, it underlined the depth of the divisions which are threatening to tear the party apart.
Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood described the ERG’s actions as “provocative”, accusing them of operating as a “party within a party”.
Tory backbencher Jonathan Djanogly said the ERG was seeking to “pull the UK off the cliff” and that he had seen nothing to show the Government had the determination to stop it.
Pro-Remain MP Anna Soubry said Mrs May needed to stand up to the group she described as the “purple Momentum”, a reference to left wing grassroots group which helped propel Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership.
“If she carries on like this, then we all know what is going to happen.
“Our party will become yet again unelectable and we will fall into the wilderness,” she told BBC2’s Newsnight.
Business Minister Richard Harrington accused the ERG, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, of “treachery” and called on them to join former Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s new party.
In an interview with Parliament’s The House magazine, conducted before the vote, he said they had celebrated after Mrs May was defeated in last month’s vote and were not true Conservatives.
“The Prime Minister has done a pretty good job of standing up to them up till now, but they were drinking champagne to celebrate her losing her deal and I regard that as being treachery,” he said.
“I read that Nigel Farage is setting up a new party called Brexit and if I were them I’d be looking at that, because that seems to reflect their views more than the Conservative Party does.
“They should read carefully what that party’s got to offer, because in my view they’re not Conservatives.”
ERG deputy chairman Steve Baker dismissed the row as a “storm in a teacup” and suggested the group’s critics should “grow up”.
He said the ERG had not been prepared to be “co-opted” into ruling out a no-deal Brexit by voting for the Government motion.
Members had been infuriated by the wording of the motion which endorsed the approach set out in a series of Commons votes at the end of January.
On that occasion, MPs voted for a Government-backed amendment calling on ministers to reopen negotiations with Brussels on the Northern Ireland backstop, which the ERG supported.
However the Commons also voted for a non-binding cross-party amendment rejecting a no-deal break with the EU.
Mr Baker insisted Thursday’s vote would not affect the Prime Minister’s negotiating mandate with Brussels.
“It’s time for some people to grow up and think about what is in the national interest,” he said.
The defeat had been largely unexpected with most attention focused on the next set of votes due on February 27 which is expected to see a concerted cross-party push to prevent a no-deal break.
Downing Street chose to turn its fire on Mr Corbyn, accusing the Labour leader of risking a no-deal Brexit by putting party before country.
The Labour leader responded by saying that it was time for Mrs May to accept her strategy had failed and to come forward with a new plan which could command broad support among MPs.
However, Mr Corbyn is also struggling to keep his party together, with impatience among some MPs at his unwillingness to back a second referendum and rumours of a breakaway party.
In the Commons, Chris Leslie, one of the Labour MPs linked with a possible split, said they were being “played for fools” by the leadership.
Chuka Umunna, another critic of Mr Corbyn, said it was the Labour leader’s job to keep his party together, not his backbenchers.
“When I joined the Labour Party, I intended to be a member on my death-bed. Ultimately whether we keep the party together is a matter for the leadership,” he told Sky News.
However shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said he was not expecting a split.
“I certainly hope that no Labour MP elected as a Labour MP leaves the Labour Party,” he told BBC2’s Newsnight.