Cabinet splits over second referendum on Brexit deal
May’s plan heading for huge defeat Fresh national poll is ‘PM’s only chance’
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?”