Jeremy Corbyn is coming under pressure to rule out Labour MPs abstaining in a crunch Brexit vote, after the minister in charge of EU withdrawal said defeat could kill off Theresa May’s plan altogether.
Supporters of a Final Say referendum have accused the Labour leader of offering a lifeline to the prime minister as she prepares her fourth attempt to force the plan through parliament.
Meanwhile, Ms May is expected to resist demands to set out a timetable for her departure as PM as she meets Tory grandees who have called for “clarity” on her intentions.
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Ms May has launched a last-ditch effort to ratify Brexit before the summer by bringing her Withdrawal Agreement Bill before parliament in the week beginning 3 June, whether or not she has secured the agreement with Labour that she needs to guarantee its safe passage.
After face-to-face talks between Mr Corbyn and Ms May, Labour said it would not support the bill without a compromise agreement complete with safeguards to avoid it being unpicked by a future Tory leader. “We are not in the business of getting into a car when we don’t know where it’s going,” said one source.
But senior Labour sources refused to rule out the party’s MPs being whipped to abstain in the crucial second reading vote, potentially saving the PM from defeat at the hands of Leave-backing Tory rebels and the DUP.
The move sparked a hostile response from backers of a second referendum, including one senior shadow cabinet minister who said he would ignore any instruction to abstain.
Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray said: “Labour must not issue a blank cheque to Theresa May over Brexit.
“Abstaining would be allowing a Tory Brexit to go ahead without even pressing for a People’s Vote and that would be totally unacceptable, so I hope the party leadership will make it clear that it’s just not on.”
Former Labour MP Chuka Umunna, chief spokesperson for Change UK, said: “By refusing to rule out abstaining on the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, the Labour Party is offering Theresa May and her Brexit plan a lifeline. This is the clearest indication yet that the Labour leadership is working with the Tory government to deliver Brexit.”
Supporters of EU membership had been buoyed by Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay’s admission that defeat for the WAB would be the final death knell for the deal laboriously negotiated over two years and agreed with the EU in November.
Mr Barclay told a parliamentary committee that if the bill falls “then the Barnier deal is dead in that form and I think the House will have to then address a much more fundamental question between whether it will pursue … a no-deal option or whether it will revoke”.
Downing Street indicated that discussions will take place in the coming weeks not only with Mr Corbyn’s party but also with Tory backbenchers and the DUP, aiming to win “the broadest possible support” for the bill’s passage through the Commons. Asked whether Ms May would go ahead even if no such coalition can be assembled, a source said: “We are going to bring the bill forward in that week.”
Cross-party talks with Labour are continuing at official level, but no “plenary” meetings between ministers and their counterparts have been announced.
Ms May faces a tough challenge fitting an expected two-day second reading vote into a week when she will be busy with the three-day state visit of the US president, Donald Trump, and D-Day commemorations in Portsmouth and Normandy. Time is even tighter because parliament is not currently scheduled to sit on the Monday or Friday.
Aides shrugged off the timing issue, saying Number 10 was “fully aware” of the busy schedule. They declined to say whether the WAB would be published ahead of the Whitsun recess, beginning on 23 May, to give MPs time to digest the long and complex constitutional legislation.
At Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, Ms May faced another call for her resignation from one of her own backbenchers.
Peter Bone told her that “loyal and dedicated” activists in his Wellingborough constituency had given him a clear message to deliver to her.
“They say that her deal is worse than staying in the EU, that they want us to come out now on a no-deal basis, and third, more importantly, they’ve lost confidence in the prime minister and wish her to resign before the European elections,” he said.
In a swipe at her backbench critics, the PM retorted: “If everybody in the House of Commons had voted along with the government and the majority of Conservative members of parliament we would already have left the European Union.”