Theresa May will seek to quell growing support for a fresh referendum after a senior cabinet minister suggested MPs should be allowed a free vote on the next stage of Brexit.
The prime minister’s move, which will see her insist that a new vote would do “irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics”, also comes after members of her inner circle were forced to deny they were secretly working on plans to give the public a Final Say referendum.
Addressing the Commons on Monday when she updates MPs on her latest talks with EU leaders, Ms May will insist that another public vote should not be seen as a solution to the deadlock gripping the Commons.
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“Let us not break faith with the British people by trying to stage another referendum,” she is expected to say.
“Another vote which would do irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics, because it would say to millions who trusted in democracy, that our democracy does not deliver.
“Another vote which would likely leave us no further forward than the last. And another vote which would further divide our country at the very moment we should be working to unite it.”
Her words will likely be seen as an attempt to end growing speculation about the prospect of another referendum.
With Labour still mulling whether to table a motion of no confidence in the prime minister this week, she will be desperate to avoid further alienating her Eurosceptic backbenchers.
Former Labour foreign secretary Dame Margaret Beckett, a supporter of the campaign for a People’s Vote, said of Ms May’s remarks: “It is highly significant that Downing Street felt it had to issue these advance extracts of her statement to the House of Commons on Sunday night, because officials know the prospect of a People’s Vote is being discussed not just in Westminster but in the corridors of Whitehall too.”
Today Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, appeared to back calls for MPs to vote on whether to hold a fresh referendum as he suggested parliament could be given a say on a range of Brexit outcomes.
The leading Brexiteer said he was not opposed to the idea of MPs being given a free vote on “what the options were” if, as expected, Ms May’s deal is rejected by MPs.
With the proposed withdrawal agreement “unlikely” to be approved by parliament, ministers needed to accept that there are only a “limited number of real-world options” available to them, he added.
Five Remain-supporting cabinet ministers are reported to be urging Ms May to hold a series of “indicative votes” in the Commons on what the government’s next step should be, but Mr Fox is the first Leave-backing minister to endorse the calls.
His intervention came as Ms May’s deputy and her chief of staff were forced to deny reports that they are secretly preparing for a Final Say referendum.
And as tensions spilled over and No 10 tried to distract attention from deepening Tory divisions, Ms May become embroiled in a bitter public spat with Tony Blair on the issue of another public vote.
The cabinet will meet on Tuesday with ministers expected to clash over how they should respond to widespread Commons opposition to the proposed withdrawal agreement.
Mr Fox said he would did not want a second referendum, which he claimed would “perpetuate the divisions in the country”.
Asked whether ministers could give Tory MPs a free vote on a series of potential Brexit outcomes, he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “That’s not something that we have considered [but] 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.
“It wasn’t the government that was given an instruction by the referendum, it was parliament.”
“Parliament said in that referendum, ‘We can’t make a decision – in this particular area we are going to subcontract our sovereignty to the people.’ And they gave us an instruction. It’s time parliament carried it out.”
And in a sign of growing support for MPs being given more say over Brexit, he suggested it would be parliament, not ministers, that “will have to decide on the alternatives” if Ms May is unable to secure the changes needed to get her deal through the Commons.
Damian Hinds, the education secretary, also said on Sunday that he was open to the idea of “flushing out” the different options, while Penny Mordaunt, the international development secretary, has for weeks been calling for Tory MPs to be given a free vote on the proposed Brexit deal.
It comes amid reports that David Lidington, Ms May’s deputy, met with Labour MPs last week to discuss a cross-party consensus for another referendum, while Gavin Barwell, her chief of staff, reportedly told ministers that a public vote is “the only way out of this”.
The pair took to Twitter to pour cold water on the claims.
Mr Barwell wrote: “Happy to confirm I am *not* planning a 2nd referendum with political opponents (or anyone else to anticipate the next question).”
Mr Lidington posted a link to a statement he made in the Commons last week in which he said another public vote “would certainly be divisive but could not guarantee to be decisive in ending this debate” and said its proponents “should not underestimate the damage that would be done to what is already fragile public confidence in our democratic institutions.”
He added: “As throughout my time in government I listen to views of MPs on all sides of the EU debate.”
Dividing lines were drawn and potential candidates to succeed Ms May jostled for position ahead of Tuesday’s key cabinet meeting. Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who admitted he fancied “a crack” at being prime minister, said the UK could “flourish and prosper” if it leaves the EU without an agreement, while Ms Mordaunt put forward a plan for using technology to keep the Northern Ireland border open if there is a no-deal Brexit,
Sajid Javid, the home secretary, and Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the Commons, are also likely to push for a managed no-deal exit if Ms May’s deal is rejected.
But Remain-supporting ministers including Mr Lidington, Philip Hammond, the chancellor, and Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, are understood to be pushing Ms May to hold a series of “indicative votes”, including the option of a second referendum. It is believed they are backed by David Gauke, the justice secretary, and Greg Clark, the business secretary.
On Saturday, Ms Rudd called on Ms May to “try something different” and attempt to build cross-party support for an alternative Brexit plan.
As the campaign for a Final Say vote gathered pace, Tony Blair hit back at Ms May after she launched a blistering attack on him.
The war of words escalated when the former prime minister called Ms May “irresponsible” and claimed she was trying to “steamroller” her deal through parliament.
Hours earlier, she had accused the former Labour leader of “undermining” her during negotiations with the EU, and she said his lobbying for another referendum was “an insult to the office he once held and the people he once served”.
In response, Mr Blair said it was clear that “neither the British people nor their parliament will unite behind the prime minister’s deal”.
He said: “In these circumstances it is not irresponsible or insulting to put forward an alternative way to achieve resolution. The sensible thing is now to allow parliament to vote on each of the forms of Brexit canvassed including the prime minister’s deal.
“If they can’t reach agreement then the logical thing is to go back to the people. To describe such a course as an insult is a strange description of what would be the opportunity for them to instruct parliament as to how to proceed. Far from being anti-democratic it would be the opposite, as indeed many senior figures in her party from past and present have been saying.”
Criticising Ms May’s approach, he added: “What is irresponsible however is to try to steamroller MPs into accepting a deal they genuinely think is a bad one with the threat that if they do not fall into line, the government will have the country crash out without a deal.”
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.