Chris Grayling.

Chris Grayling’s claim that blocking Brexit could lead to a rise in far-right extremism is dangerous scaremongering and a desperate attempt to shore up the prime minister’s Brexit deal, campaigners and MPs have said.

The transport secretary told the Daily Mail that Britain would become a less tolerant and more nationalistic society if it failed to leave the EU. He said reversing the referendum result would result in the 17 million people who voted to leave feeling cheated and urged colleagues to support Theresa May’s deal.

“People should not underestimate this,” he said. “We would see a different tone in our politics. A less tolerant society, a more nationalistic nation. It will open the door to extremist populist political forces in this country of the kind we see in other countries in Europe.

“If MPs who represent seats that voted 70% to leave say, ‘Sorry guys, we’re still going to have freedom of movement’, they will turn against the political mainstream.”

Chris Grayling says blocking Brexit will result in a less tolerant, more nationalistic, society. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

The Labour MP David Lammy described Grayling’s comments as “a desperate attempt by a government minister to use a tiny far-right minority to hold our democracy to ransom. It is gutter politics.

“History shows us appeasement only emboldens the far right and impoverishing the country through Brexit will only increase resentment. To heal our nation, we need to provide a positive narrative that actually addresses the inequalities that have been allowed to ferment over recent years, rather than follow through with bogus solutions that worsens them.”

The Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson, Tom Brake, said: “Chris Grayling has lost the plot. This kind of scaremongering is not only dangerous, but it is embarrassing.

“Politicians should be focused on healing the divisions in our country, not shamefully stoking the fire in order to secure support for Theresa May’s botched deal.”

Nick Ryan, a spokesperson for the campaign group Hope Not Hate, said: If the headlines are to be believed, this looks like a dangerous attempt to save the PM’s Brexit deal, based on No 10’s panic, rather than a careful analysis of the true far-right threat. Government ministers should be more careful, and less cynical, with their language.

“Chris Grayling has done a disservice to the cause of all those fighting back against the far right by seeking to weaponise the issue in support of a scramble to shore up support for the PM’s deal. In doing so, he simply plays into the hands of those extremists seeking to use Brexit as a platform to boost their profile.”

Luciana Berger, a Labour MP and leading supporter of the People’s Vote campaign, said: “Chris Grayling is now cowering behind the small threat of far-right extremism as an excuse for refusing to give the British people a democratic final say on Brexit.

“These remarks are not only grossly irresponsible but also show just how desperate supporters of this proposed withdrawal agreement have become. We absolutely need to heal divisions in our society but we will not do so with a Brexit that makes us poorer and offers less control. And the answer to a small band of far-right thugs roaming the streets must never be to capitulate and restrict our democratic engagement – it must be more democracy.”

The Tory MP Anna Soubry, who was called a “Nazi” and a “liar” by a mob which targeted her during live television interviews outside parliament on Monday, described Grayling’s comments as “irresponsible nonsense”.

She tweeted: “The 15 yobs who have been roaming outside parliament do not represent anyone but themselves. It’s shameful to validate them in this way. Rightwing extremists have always existed, Brexit is just an excuse – this is their real agenda.”

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