Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has said it would be “shameful” for the UK Government to request an extension of Article 50, and that it would be seen by the public as an “elite conspiracy to thwart Brexit”.
The extension of Article 50 would delay Brexit beyond the current deadline of March 29.
"It would be shameful at this late stage to change that totemic date - March 29, the one fact to which the public has been able to cling with absolute certainty in this sea of political confusion," he said.
"All this vacuous talk of extending Article 50 is dishonest but it's also weakening our negotiating position once again."
Speaking at JCB headquarters in Staffordshire, Mr Johnson said it would be "absolutely preposterous" if a delay were to force the UK to spend money on elections to the European Parliament this spring, adding: "The public would have the strong and altogether justified impression of an elite conspiracy to thwart Brexit.
“To extend Article 50 now would do nothing but erode trust in politics.”
'Unite the country'
The MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip called on the Government to "use Brexit to unite the country" and focus on the issues that drove the vote for EU withdrawal.
The Prime Minister’s Brexit deal was rejected by MPs on Tuesday by a majority of 230 votes.
Mr Johnson said: "Yes, it (Brexit) was about democracy. But that vote was also triggered by a feeling that, in some way, the people of this country have been drifting too far apart and in areas where we need to come together."
He said the UK should remove the Irish backstop from Theresa May's plan but retain the proposed transition period to December 2020, using the period to negotiate a new free trade deal.
He added that the UK should withhold half of its £39 billion financial settlement until the deal is completed, in order to "put a tiger in the tank" of the EU's willingness to make concessions.
Mr Johnson said he was confident that the EU countries would become more "flexible" in negotiations as the deadline for Brexit got nearer, as history showed that it was "only in the last few days and weeks of a negotiation that the big concessions are made".
'More cosmopolitan than JCB'
Boris Johnson speaking at the JCB Headquarters in Staffordshire on Friday.
Mr Johnson defended his reputation saying he was not a “nationalist” if that meant being a “xenophobe”, adding that he was “more cosmopolitan than JCB”.
"I am not a nationalist, if by that you mean I'm a xenophobe, or someone who deprecates other countries and cultures,” he said.
"Absolutely not, far from it. My ancestors come from all over the place, like JCB who source from all around the world. In fact, I am probably more cosmopolitan than JCB.
"But I do believe that the idea of belonging to a nation or a group can be immensely powerful and positive."