SPAIN has warned that direct rule of Catalonia could continue under measures imposed by Madrid if pro-independence groups try to swear in the jailed leader of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) Jordi Sànchez as their new president.

Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s cabinet spokesperson, told Spanish radio station COPE: “If there is no legally formed government, Article 155 will continue.”

He said Catalonia must have a president who was “fully able” to fulfil his duties for the constitutional measure to be lifted.

Although Carles Puigdemont, the sacked Catalan president, is in exile in Brussels and is described by supporters as “the only person for the job” should Madrid ever allow it, the name of Sànchez, one of those jailed without trial, has emerged in recent days as a possible alternative.

In another interview, Spanish Justice Minister Rafael Catalá, ruled out Sànchez, saying: “No one can do their work if they are without freedom, in prison.”

Catalan MPs are expected to vote today on supporting Puigdemont as president, although they no longer plan to try to swear him into the post, which has been vacant since the December 21 election returned a majority of pro-independence members.

Puigdemont, who faces arrest on allegations of rebellion and sedition should he return to Spain, has said an agreement on forming a new government was “close”.

He said the next Catalan government should work on developing an independent republic while staying within Spanish law.

And while he remains the only person nominated for the presidency, he said he would give it up should his fellow MPs withdraw their support for him.

He said: “If the Catalan parliament decides to swear in another person, I will respect it.”