Brexit: Ministers deny May government is preparing for second referendum
Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt says UK would ‘flourish and prosper’ even without an exit agreement
Key allies of British prime minister Theresa May have distanced themselves from reports they are involved in planning for a new Brexit referendum. The prime minister’s defacto deputy, cabinet office minister David Lidington, and Mrs May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell, indicated they are not in favour of a new EU withdrawal vote.
The move followed reports that Mr Lidington held talks with Labour MPs last week aimed at getting cross-party consensus for a new referendum. In response, Mr Lidington tweeted a link to last week’s Mr Hansard record of parliamentary proceedings, where he set out how a second vote was a possibility, but could be “divisive not decisive”. Mr Barwell tweeted: “Happy to confirm I am *not* planning a 2nd referendum with political opponents (or anyone else to anticipate the next question)”
Mrs May delayed a vote last week on her agreement to leave the European Union because she was set to lose in parliament and has tried to secure “assurances” from the EU to try to better sell it to sceptical lawmakers. Brussels said last week it was ready to help but warned her that she could not renegotiate the deal.
With less than four months before Britain is due to leave in March, Mrs May is facing deadlock in parliament over the deal, and more politicians are talking about the possibility of Britain leaving without an agreement or a second referendum that could stop Brexit from happening.
Education secretary Damian Hinds insisted cabinet has not discussed a second EU referendum. Asked if cabinet had talked about the issue, Mr Hinds told Sky News: “No. Government policy couldn’t be clearer. We are here to act on the will of the British people clearly expressed in the referendum.”
Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt insisted the UK would “flourish and prosper” even without an exit agreement. Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Hunt also said he wanted a “crack” at succeeding Mrs May after she takes the country through what he described as “this challenging next few months”
“I would put Remain and the prime minister’s deal on the ballot... Compared to the prime minister’s deal Remain is a lot better.” As cabinet members tried to dampen talk of a fresh Brexit poll, international trade secretary Liam Fox indicated he could support a free vote for MPs on Brexit options. Asked about a free vote, Dr Fox told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show: “That’s not something we have considered. “I have to say, personally, I wouldn’t have a huge problem with parliament as a whole having a say on what the options were.”
Dr Fox signalled he thought there could be EU movement in the new year regarding anxieties Brexiteers have that Britain could be “trapped” in the Northern Ireland backstop. He said: “It’s very clear that the EU understand what the problem is. And it’s a question now, without unpicking the whole of the withdrawal agreement, can we find a mechanism of operating the backstop in a way that actually removes those anxieties. “It will happen over Christmas. It is not going to happen this week. It is not going to be quick. “It will happen sometime in the new year.”
The backstop, intended to prevent the return of hard border in Ireland, would keep the UK obeying EU customs rules if a wider trade deal had not been agreed by the end of a transition period.
‘Insulting’ the British people
Mrs May survived a no confidence vote among her Conservative MPs last week, but opposition parties are calling for Labour to propose a parliamentary motion of no confidence against the government this week.
Labour has repeatedly said it will call such a motion at “the best time”, or when it knows it can win, and for now will try to force the government to bring its deal to parliament sooner.
Elsewhere, Mrs May has accused Tony Blair of “insulting” the British people and the office of prime minister by “undermining” Brexit talks with calls for a second referendum.
In a pointed criticism of the former Labour prime minister, Mrs May said a second referendum would amount to Parliament abdicating responsibility.
Mrs May said: “For Tony Blair to go to Brussels and seek to undermine our negotiations by advocating for a second referendum is an insult to the office he once held and the people he once served.
“We cannot, as he would, abdicate responsibility for this decision. Parliament has a democratic duty to deliver what the British people voted for. I remain determined to see that happen. I will not let the British people down.”
In a series of high-profile interventions into the Brexit debate Mr Blair has insisted that a majority of MPs may decide a second referendum is the only way out of parliamentary gridlock on EU withdrawal.
Mrs May said some critics were trying to take advantage of the situation for their own ends.
She said: “I am fighting for a good deal for Britain. I will continue to fight for a good deal for Britain. I have never lost sight of my duty, and that is to deliver on the referendum result and to do so in a way that protects British jobs, keeps us safe and protects our precious Union.
“However there are too many people who want to subvert the process for their own political interests - rather than acting in the national interest.”
Former Tory prime minister John Major has also made several interventions on Brexit. He has called for the immediate revocation of the Article 50 withdrawal process to give politicians on all sides time to work through the “morass”.
Mr Major has also warned that Brexiteers responsible for persuading the British public to leave the European Union will never be forgiven for their “false promises”. – Reuters, PA