Cabi­net splits over sec­ond ref­er­en­dum on Brexit deal

May’s plan head­ing for huge de­feat Fresh na­tional poll is ‘PM’s only chance’

The Observer - - Front Page - Michael Sav­age, Toby Helm & Daniel Bof­fey Brus­sels

A deep cabi­net split has opened up over whether Theresa May should back a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum in a fi­nal at­tempt to end the political dead­lock over Brexit, as se­nior Con­ser­va­tives last night pre­dicted that her blue­print for leav­ing the EU was head­ing for a crush­ing House of Com­mons de­feat.

Ad­ding to a mount­ing sense of con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis ahead of Tues­day’s cru­cial par­lia­men­tary vote, No 10 is braced for more res­ig­na­tions of min­is­ters and aides who want an­other ref­er­en­dum, or who be­lieve May’s deal fails to de­liver on Brexit.

Cabi­net min­is­ters have told the Ob­server that at­tempts to con­vince May to de­lay the vote to avoid one of the largest and most hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feats in re­cent parliament his­tory had not been heeded. This was de­spite the “ob­vi­ous threat” that such a re­sult could pro­voke a lead­er­ship chal­lenge and split the party ir­re­vo­ca­bly. Some cabi­net min­is­ters now be­lieve that May is so wed­ded to her Brexit deal that her only method of gain­ing ap­proval will be through an­other ref­er­en­dum – and that the ar­gu­ments for a sec­ond vote are emerg­ing as stronger than those for soft Brexit. The prime minister has so far re­fused to en­ter­tain any idea of a sec­ond pub­lic vote.

One cabi­net source said it might prove to be the only way of sav­ing May’s deal and her rep­u­ta­tion. “She is so committed to her deal, and a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum could now be the

only way of get­ting it. The polls have been re­mark­ably sta­ble for a while, but there does seem to be some kind of move­ment [to Re­main], and that could well de­velop in the com­ing days and weeks.”

An­other se­nior Tory back­ing a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum said: “There are peo­ple in the cabi­net who back a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum, but they are rid­ing sev­eral horses so they don’t have to quit.”

There is even talk among se­nior min­is­ters that May should form a tem­po­rary gov­ern­ment of na­tional unity should she be de­feated, as a “last throw of the dice” to find a ma­jor­ity for a Brexit plan that works.

Am­ber Rudd, the work and pen­sions sec­re­tary, yes­ter­day broke ranks to be­come the first cabi­net minister to openly sug­gest al­ter­na­tives to May’s plan. Rudd ar­gued that a Nor­waystyle soft Brexit could be the way through the im­passe. She also said in an in­ter­view with the Times that she did not rule out a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum and made it clear that if there were to be one, she would vote Re­main.

Writ­ing in to­day’s Ob­server on­line, how­ever, the jus­tice sec­re­tary David Gauke dis­misses both the Nor­way op­tion and a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum, which he says would come with “great risks”. Strongly back­ing May’s deal, Gauke says a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum “is by no means guar­an­teed to be a sil­ver bul­let. It is more likely to en­trench di­vi­sion and lead to at least a fur­ther year of dam­ag­ing uncer­tainty.”

Down­ing Street said it re­mained firmly op­posed to a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum, and in­sisted the prime minister was fo­cused on win­ning the “mean­ing­ful vote”. But a se­nior Con­ser­va­tive back­bencher, aware of the level of op­po­si­tion to May’s deal in the party, said there could be at least 100 Tory MPs who would not sup­port her. A close ally of for­mer for­eign sec­re­tary Boris John­son said a de­feat on that scale would leave May no choice but to re­sign.

In a fur­ther blow to the prime minister, the all-party se­lect com­mit­tee on ex­it­ing the Euro­pean Union, which con­tains 10 Tory MPs, to­day pub­lishes a unan­i­mous and scathing re­port on her deal. The com­mit­tee says many of the most im­por­tant ques­tions about the UK’s fu­ture re­la­tions with the EU have been left unan­swered be­cause of min­is­ters’ un­will­ing­ness to con­front key is­sues. Com­mit­tee chair­man, the Labour MP Hi­lary Benn, said the deal lacks clar­ity and would rep­re­sent “a huge step into the un­known”.

The com­mit­tee unites be­hind a con­clu­sion that “there are no re­al­is­tic, long-term pro­pos­als from the Gov­ern­ment to rec­on­cile main­tain­ing an open bor­der on the is­land of Ire­land with leav­ing the Sin­gle Mar­ket and Cus­toms Union”.

To­day, Tory MP Sarah Wol­las­ton re­veals a new strat­egy to secure cross-party back­ing for a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum. Rather than tabling an amend­ment to Tues­day’s main mo­tion, as pre­vi­ously planned, she will launch a cam­paign to rally MPs be­hind a sec­ond vote if and when May’s deal is de­feated. Tory MPs in favour of sec­ond vote hope Labour will of­fi­cially back the call al­low­ing a par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity to be formed.

Frans Tim­mer­mans, vice-pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean com­mis­sion, speak­ing at a con­fer­ence in Por­tu­gal at­tended yes­ter­day by Jeremy Cor­byn, urged the Labour leader to back a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum. He said: “The Brexit vote was the low­est point in my political life. We re­spect the vote. But since that vote, much has changed in the world. And the EU has changed.

“Look­ing at the UK and hav­ing lis­tened to Jeremy Cor­byn and his plans, I have a ques­tion: Can you achieve what you want more eas­ily as a mem­ber of the EU fam­ily or on your own?”

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