Greg Clark’s comments contradicted official government policy of not ruling out a no-deal Brexit and exposed further divisions after embattled Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a series of setbacks in parliament.
A no-deal Brexit would be “a disastrous situation in which we move to the most rudimentary terms of trade with our closest partners,” Greg Clark told BBC radio.
In such a scenario, Britain would be forced to trade with the EU on World Trade Organization terms, which could mean much higher tariffs for some products such as cars.
As things stand, Britain will leave the EU with no official deal on March 29 if parliament fails to approve an agreement the government has struck with the bloc.
MPs are set to vote on the agreement on Tuesday.
“It is my strong view that we need to come together now, we need to act to avoid no-deal because I don’t think there is anything remotely like a majority in parliament that will tolerate it,” he said.
Brexit supporting MPs are opposed to the deal, and May has already pulled the vote once with defeat looming.
Most MPs supported staying in the EU in the 2016 referendum, and many have vowed to do everything within their power to prevent a no-deal scenario.
As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Britain on Thursday, Clark said of Japanese businesses: “We need to resolve this concern, this very real concern that they have of us crashing out on March 29”.
Japanese firms have invested billions of pounds in Britain, and are especially crucial in the car industry, using the country as a business-friendly home from which to trade across the continent.
The car sector was rocked on Thursday by reports that Jaguar Land Rover is set to announce up to 5,000 job cuts, with Brexit uncertainty cited as a factor.
– Parliamentary fireworks –
May is making a desperate last push to win MPs over to her Brexit deal, ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
She faces daunting odds in getting the deal passed, and suffered a stinging defeat on Wednesday when MPs voted for an amendment demanding she produce new plans within three days if the agreement is voted down.
Aiming to capitalise on her weakness, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was on Thursday to make a Brexit speech in Wakefield, northern England, in which he was expected to call for a general election to resolve the deadlock.
“Let there be no doubt: Theresa May’s deal is a bad deal and Labour will vote against it next week in parliament,” he was to say, according to extracts released by his office.
“If the government cannot pass its most important legislation, then there must be a general election at the earliest opportunity.”
Many in his party hope that he will call for a second referendum, but the veteran leftist, a long-time critic of the European Union, has so far resisted.
MPs were on Thursday to hold the second of five days of debate ahead of the historic vote, after explosive scenes in the House on Wednesday.
Brexiteers accused speaker of the house John Bercow of anti-Brexit bias when he apparently ignored the advice of Commons officials and selected the amendment demanding May bring forward new plans in the event of defeat.