Brexit: Philip Hammond goes rogue with challenge to Theresa May to start 'building consensus' for softer deal

Chancellor says rejection of prime minister's deal provides 'opportunity' to find plan that parliament can 'collectively support' 

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 13 March 2019 14:53 GMT
(Parliament Live)

Philip Hammond has challenged Theresa May to start "building a consensus" in parliament for a Brexit plan as he hinted that the prime minister will need to back down if she is to secure MPs approval for deal.

In an impassioned plea at the end of his Spring Statement, the chancellor said there was now an "opportunity to start to map out a way forward" to find a Brexit plan "we can collectively support".

The comments put him firmly at odds with Ms May, who has insisted her deal is the only one possible.

Hinting at his support for a softer Brexit, Mr Hammond said any deal must "allow Britain to flourish, protecting jobs and business".

He confirmed that he would be voting against a no-deal Brexit in tonight's crunch vote. A second vote, scheduled for tomorrow, will see MPs decide whether they want to seek a delay to Brexit.

Mr Hammond's statement followed a cabinet clash over how the government should proceed after Ms May's deal was rejected by MPs last night for a second time. Some ministers reportedly called on the prime minister to now opt for no-deal, while others urged her to drop her red lines and agree to a softer Brexit.

The chancellor is said to have led calls for the prime minister to reach out and try to form a cross-party consensus for a Brexit plan. If it is to secure Labour's support, any such agreement would likely need to involve the UK staying in a customs union with the EU - something Ms May has repeatedly ruled out.

Repeating his message in the Commons, Mr Hammond told MPs: "Last night's events mean we are not where I hoped we would be today.

"Our economy is fundamentally robust. But the uncertainty that I hoped we would lift last night, still hangs over it.

"We cannot allow that to continue. It is damaging our economy and it is damaging our standing and reputation in the world.

Diverging dramatically from Ms May's message that her deal is the only one possible, he insisted: "Tonight, we have a choice. We can remove the threat of an imminent no-deal exit hanging over our economy.

"Tomorrow, we will have the opportunity to start to map out a way forward towards building a consensus across this House for a deal we can collectively support, to exit the EU in an orderly way to a future relationship that will allow Britain to flourish, protecting jobs and businesses

Insisting that "a brighter future is within our grasp", he added: "Tonight, let's take a decisive step towards seizing it and building a Britain fit for the future - a Britain the next generation will be proud to call their home."

However, Mr Hammond was immediately contradicted by his de facto deputy, Treasury chief secretary Liz Truss. She said she would be voting to keep no-deal on the table tonight's vote, in which Ms May is allowing MPs to vote how they want, insisting that it was "vitally important" to do so.

She told BBC's Politics Live: "I am going to vote to keep no deal on the table. I think it's vitally important that we keep no deal on the table, we hold our nerve and we keep pressure up because if we extend, if we allow the pressure to dissipate, ultimately I fear that we won't end up delivering Brexit at all, and that will be a massive problem with public trust."

Theresa May's Brexit deal defeated in the House of Commons

When asked about Mr Hammond's comments, Treasury aides played down the idea that he was not supportive of Ms May's deal.

Meanwhile the prime minister's official spokesman said: "I point you back to the PM's words last night. She said, 'this House faces choices in the coming days'. She set out her determination to leave with a deal."

The spokesman went on: "If we are to do that, that will mean finding common ground on a way forward, and as far as I can see, that's what the chancellor was saying."

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